Sixteen years ago, Vietnam
veterans in Rockland County, New York, wanted to do something
on Memorial Day to honor those who had died in service to the
United States, but they didn't want a parade or long speeches
or a gathering in a cemetery. They didn't want a pro forma
ceremony that would quickly fade from memory.
Jerry Donnellan, who later would become VVA Chapter 333
president, said they wanted something different, something
striking enough to touch the families of the fallen, other
veterans, and everyone in the surrounding communities. They
wanted something people would see and remember. They found it
in the Revolutionary War. Sixteen years later, watch fires
still burn every Memorial Day.
George Washington used watch fires to signal the cease fire
that ended the Revolutionary War. Rockland County was rich in
that history. The veterans put it to use. Using military
regulations and specifications from the Revolutionary War,
they built five fires--21 square feet at the base, 21 feet
high at the peak. The fires were lit simultaneously at
midnight and burned for 24 hours, the veterans keeping watch,
changing shifts, finding themselves reminded of firebases on
other mountaintops in another war.
At a distance, the fires' glow could be seen by thousands of
people, but only the veterans kept watch at the sites. They
scrawled the names of old Vietnam War battlefields on boards
and posted them on trees. A roll call of the dead from local
communities--116 names--was read.
When they decided on the watch fire program in 1987, the movie
Platoon had captured the public's attention. The image
of the Vietnam veteran was changing and they wanted to
capitalize on it.
"That movie put us in a different light,'' Donnellan said. "We
had gone from bums to almost super-heroes. We wanted to take
advantage of the situation. Obviously, we were neither bums
nor super-heroes. Now the pendulum has swung back to the
center, and people take us as just people.''
Donnellan and others stood outside movie theaters and
distributed leaflets with Vietnam veterans information and an
invitation to a meeting, though at the time, VVA wasn't in the
"We hadn't even thought of VVA,'' Donnellan said. "That was
still down the road a bit.''
He thought they might get three or four people for the first
meeting, but the number was much larger--enough to reassure
him that the interest was there. Memorial Day was coming up.
He had been reading about George Washington and suggested
building watch fires, but to do it with little fanfare. He
didn't want them expecting a big crowd, only to be
disappointed if the response was less than expected.
They wrote to the governor and the park system. The
superintendent of the park system, it turned out, was a
Vietnam veteran. They had a friend. They needed to get fire
departments to back them up. So many of the fire departments
were full of veterans that it was not difficult finding
support there. Then the National Guard got involved, sending
Hueys to haul logs up to the top of the mountains.
"It brought a great deal of pride to everyone,'' said
Donnellan, now director of the Rockland County Veterans
Service Agency. "We set out to do more things not typical of
veterans-- readings and lectures in schools, an art exhibit.
We tried to be slightly different than the typical veterans
group, and I think the public responded to it.''
As the watch-fire program continued to grow, community
involvement grew with it. More and more "civilians'' became
involved--tree companies, county employees, highway
departments. All came forward to help build the fires.
"It's become more of a community effort and has drawn
attention to veterans as a whole, although it started out
primarily as something for Vietnam veterans,'' Donnellan said.
In the year that followed the first watch fires, local
governments recognized that the fires had heightened interest
in veterans affairs. As that interest grew, Donnellan said the
veterans persuaded the county to give the VA space in a
medical center and then spoke with the VA about supplying
personnel for it.
"Without any cost to the VA, it could have a satellite clinic
in the county,'' Donnellan said. "It did so well that six
years ago we developed an even larger VA clinic in a private
sector space. We went from 250 veterans from this county using
outpatient services to 6,000. It was just a case of where you
are--location, location, location. It's continued to grow.''
Frank Mahoney, the current chapter president, said the
communities now have pledged to maintain the watch fire
tradition in perpetuity.
``The last couple of years we brought some of the watch fires
out of the mountains and into the towns,'' he said. ``The
towns responded by giving us an area to have the fires in
public parks. They've really supported us. Anything we need,
they've more than graciously extended themselves to us.''
"As we get older,'' Mahoney said, "we start to see more people
move up in the government and the private sector. A lot of
them are Vietnam vets and Korean War vets. You get to know
everybody. We have the Rockland County Veterans Coordinating
Council, which comprises all the veterans organizations. We
share information. We get along well. We have a very good mix
of veterans and community involvement.''
When they lit the first fires at midnight on Memorial Day,
there was little conversation until about 4 a.m. Newspaper
stories talked about the "healing process.''
"I think it was genuine,'' Jerry Donnellan said. "You could
talk. You knew certain questions wouldn't come with edges on
them. You knew the people you talked to knew the lexicon, the
vocabulary of the Vietnam War. You wouldn't have to stop to
explain what you were talking about. When I came home from
Vietnam, I figured I was the only Vietnam veteran around. We
kept to ourselves. When we first put the chapter together in
1987, there were a bunch of us out there, successful people
who in the ensuing 20 years after the war had made their mark.
I think a lot of friendships were renewed.''