October 22, 2021

Vietnam memorial restoration gets boost

Veterans put on concert to raise money

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Vietnam Veterans and Cortland County residents gathered in Courthouse Park Saturday afternoon for the Vietnam Memorial Benefit Concert. Donations would go toward the Vietnam memorial, which is in need of restoration.

Music filled the air — laughter, too — as dozens of people gathered Saturday on behalf of 20 men now forever silent.

It was a fund-raising concert to refurbish a Vietnam memorial at Courthouse Park in Cortland. Twenty names are carved into the granite slabs — slabs now hanging loose from the monument, the paint highlighting the letters long since faded since the monument was dedicated in 1968.

The Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 of Dryden has been raising money for months for the $30,000 project, a goal the veterans say they’re close to reaching.

“All of this is to raise money for the memorial. It’s so broken up it’s heartbreaking,” said 13-year-old Gino Barnes, co-organizer of the event and a member of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans Association. “The fact that it’s our way of supporting members of service who have risked their lives for our country, and yet it’s falling apart.”

His grandfather, Gene Barnes, is a Vietnam veteran who helped get the original memorial put in place.

“In school we’re taught that these people have risked their lives, that they’ve gone somewhere else to help save our country,” Gino Barnes said. “I look at the memorial as a sign, showing that we recognize that our troops have risked their lives to help us. When these men signed up, in my eyes, they’re giving all of their energy for just a little piece of freedom for us. This memorial is a symbol of remembrance, acknowledging that there are people working 24/7 to help our country out.”

Members of the Associates of Vietnam Veterans Association sold artificial poppies and raffle tickets for a guitar offered by one of the musicians playing at the concert. Half of the proceeds would go to the Vietnam memorial project. Refreshments were available, including Coffee Mania iced tea and ice coffee and fresh meals from Fredhot’s mobile hotdog stand.

“We’re not really charging anything, we’re just offering in return for donations — some people are handing over $10 or $20,” said Frederick Ingrahm, owner of Fredhot’s.

People brought tent covers and lawn chairs in preparation for expected rain — a backup plan that proved useful when the clouds darkened and down-poured across Cortland less than two hours into the concert.

Although the weather may have deterred Cortland residents from the event, the Cortland Vietnam Memorial Restoration GoFundMe will remain available online over the next few months.

If they can get enough money raised, members of the Vietnam Veterans Association hope they can begin the restoration process before the end of the year.

“Oh man, I’ll be down there just about every week just to look at it once it’s done,” said Vietnam veteran Dale VanBenschoten. “It would bring a lot of memories, good and bad, but what we’re doing is raising money for a good cause — for the families whose loved one’s names were already on there, and for the combat veterans who might come back.”

VanBenschoten said it’s also important for future generations to understand what their grandparents and great-grandparents sacrificed for their country.

“There’s a lot of young people out here that don’t know an awful lot about what we did, what we went through,” VanBenschoten said. “They’re going to learn about it, but the more that we can get out there and show them, the better off they’re going to be, knowledge-wise and having respect.”

The Vietnam memorial was built in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, and has seen little repair work since. The restoration project would remove the tail-end of the memorial, add an LED light to illuminate the torch that was once lit by propane, and repaint the original gold of the engraved names.

“It’ll mean a lot,” Vietnam veteran Jim Everner said as he gazed at the broken memorial. “It’s a way for several of the families to hold on to them. One of the names that’s on there, Bill Phelps, I served with him in Vietnam. It’s a way to let the families know that we haven’t forgotten — everybody still remembers their service.”