Image courtesy of VHPA
The Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Assn. (VHPA) has pointed out that there is no national monument anywhere in the U.S. honoring those who died while operating 11,827 helicopters (by its tally) sent to the Vietnam War.
During U.S. joint operations from 1961 to 1975, 6,425 military and paramilitary pilots, crewmembers and others were killed on helicopter missions in that war the association said, and 5,086 helicopters were destroyed. After years of effort by that association, Gold Star families (those who have lost a loved one in military service), the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. and other groups, the VHPA hopes to dedicate a granite Vietnam Helicopter Crew Monument Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C. by Memorial Day 2018.
In 2014, the VHPA submitted a proposal for a monument in that cemetery, but the Secretary of the Army turned it down. The association was instead granted a small tree marker. The VHPA said it was told the cemetery needed to preserve space for future gravesites.
“This was unacceptable,” wrote Bob Hesslbein, VHPA’s current legacy chairman. Of the cemetery’s 140-plus existing tree markers at the time, “none remember and honor a sacrifice by so many, and indeed it is an inappropriate tribute to the sizable casualties incurred during 13 years of helicopter combat.”
After that rejection, the association pursued congressional action. The VHPA and Gold Star Family volunteers orchestrated a “congressional hall walk” to demonstrate the importance of the tribute. Earlier this year, bills called the Vietnam Helicopter Crew Monument Act were introduced in both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.
Now there is no need for either to come to a vote. In March, the VHPA reached an agreement with the U.S. Army executive in charge of Arlington.
Hesselbein said that the executive director of Army National Cemeteries, Karen Durham-Aguilera, authorized a 22-inch-high, 21-inch-deep, 32-inch-wide trapezoidal monument by the VHPA-dedicated tree (bordering Memorial Drive in Arlington’s Section 35, not far from the Tomb of the Unknowns) that includes all design elements of the original Vietnam Helicopter Pilot and Crewmember Monument proposal.
The design must be approved by the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, which could happen in June. If all goes as planned, the monument will then be carved and finished by the Vermont Granite Co. and delivered to Washington. It would be placed at Arlington and dedicated before Memorial Day next year. (Hesselbein said congressional action might have taken two more years.)
“It was the work of many good people — VHPA and Gold Star Family volunteers, the national VFW, and other organizations — who voiced their support to Congress and made clear to the Army that the American people want to honor the rotary-wing operators who died serving their nation in Vietnam,” Hesselbein said. “The tide of voices agreeing Arlington… is the proper place to express the nation’s appreciation led its management to revise their stand on placing a monument… I am confident the legacy monument will be placed where it rightfully belongs: Arlington National Cemetery.”