Herman: Vietnam monument controversy continues

Almost six months after the long-awaited Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument was dedicated to great acclaim and emotion, Patrick Reilly, an early participant in the planning process, is ready to share a secret about it.

The Asian-American U.S. soldier on the statue, who originally was to be a South Vietnamese soldier, still is a South Vietnamese soldier, according to Reilly, basing his conclusion on the pockets and epaulettes on the figure’s shirt.

To understand the significance of Reilly’s claim — backed by Duke Sundt, the monument’s sculptor – we have to revisit the project’s evolution. State and private money was involved, the latter raised during fundraising that included efforts among Vietnamese-Americans in Texas who were happy that a South Vietnamese soldier was to be included. Many of those donors were upset when project officials scrapped the wounded South Vietnamese soldier in favor of a wounded Asian-American U.S. soldier, completing a diversity tableau with a white, an African-American, an Hispanic and a Native American.

Reilly, who got crosswise with planning committee members and eventually was not involved in the latter planning stages, was among those who fought to keep the South Vietnamese soldier.

“They had collected money from the Vietnamese community, and it wasn’t so much about the Vietnamese soldier as it was about our nobility in going there and fighting for these people.” Reilly said. “That’s what he represented, fighting for these people.”

As we gazed at the monument, Reilly, who lost part of leg while serving as a Marine in Vietnam, showed me why the wounded, seated figure is a South Vietnamese soldier. It’s subtle.

“You see the epaulettes on these shoulders up here,” he said, pointing at what is supposed to be the wounded Asian-American U.S. soldier. “We did not have epaulettes. This is the exact same shirt that was on the Vietnamese shoulder when it was designated as a Vietnamese soldier.”

“They didn’t change his shirt. The only thing they changed is they took the beret off,” Reilly said, also noting that the shirt pockets differ from those on the U.S soldiers on the monument.

And he showed me how the shirt matched the one on the South Vietnamese soldier on a bronze model of the statue. Reilly also had with him the actual shirt worn by the Vietnamese-American man — his Cedar Park neighbor Brandon Nguyen — who posed in it so Sundt could get photos to work with. Reilly said he had the shirt made in Westminster, California’s Little Saigon, based on Vietnamese Army documents.

“Yeah,” he said of the finished work, “they overlooked it. I am tickled pink. Yes, I am, and in the end won the battle.”

So why didn’t he say something sooner?

“Why should I?” he said. “I fought for the Vietnamese. That’s why I was in Vietnam. I felt like what (the monument committee) was doing was wrong and since they were going to be the experts at it, OK, go right ahead.”

Sundt, a New Mexico artist who has done several major public monuments, said Reilly is right about this one.

“Oh yeah,” he said when asked if the shirt is the one he sculpted when it was to be a South Vietnamese soldier. “They paid me and basically asked me not to come back. That was one of the things I could have corrected. I could have put an American shirt on it, but they were just going by the maquette which was sculpted as a South Vietnamese soldier.”

Sundt, like Reilly, is upset that the South Vietnamese soldier was removed after his initial design was used to raise money among Vietnamese-Americans in Texas. Sundt said the committee asked if he could make the change, to which he said, “I could do it under protest.” He agreed, but eventually “they wanted me out of the picture” and paid his $350,000 fee. The final changes, including changes in that figure’s face and positioning, were made at the Bastrop foundry where the monument was made.

“It hurt me and I think it hurt the state of Texas because they wound up with a piece of art designed by committee,” Sundt said, noting he signed it as “‘original design by Duke Sundt’ because I just wanted out from under the thing.”

The monument notes that “final sculpting” was done by others.

Several monument committee members were very upset that I was pursuing Reilly’s claim. Some, citing past actions, questioned his credibility. Some said the uniform is nonspecific. The monument’s website says, “The figures are deliberately void of military markings: these are soldiers united not by the threads of uniform but by the bond of battle.”

But all are intended to be in a uniform of the USA.

“The answer to that question is I really don’t know,” lobbyist Robert Floyd, who chaired the committee, said when asked if the figure in question is still clad in the uniform it wore when he was supposed to be South Vietnamese. “I really don’t know and, frankly, I really don’t think it makes any difference.”

Floyd said Reilly deserves credit for some of his early efforts on the project, including making the connection with Sundt. And Floyd acknowledged difficulty in working with Sundt. “He might have grumbled some, but he never quit taking our money,” Floyd said.

Terry Burkett, who served as chair of the project’s veterans outreach committee, acknowledged that the shirt on the soldier now identified as an Asian-American is unchanged. Committee member John Miterko said, if Sundt “says the uniform is of a South Vietnamese soldier, I have no reason to doubt his claim.”

Committee member Kerry Orr said: “On the positive side, like most wonderful works of art, isn’t it great that so many people can look at the monument and see the things that they personally need to find comfort and healing?”

Well said. And perhaps Floyd is right, perhaps it doesn’t make any difference who the seated figure is. Despite any difference about the fine details on the shirt worn by one figure, there is agreement that the work, taken as a whole, is a moving, overdue tribute to Texans who served in Vietnam, including the 3,417 who died doing so.

Though disappointed in how the project progressed and less than pleased with the outcome, Sundt said he’s “honored” to have been involved. “Overall,” he said, “it was a positive thing.”

Ditto from Reilly.

“God works in funny ways, and that’s what it is,” he said, “and to me that should satisfy all sides. They can call it whatever they want, and the Vietnamese will look at it and they’ll call it what it is, what they see. So I think everybody basically got what they wanted in the end.”

The resulting controversy, artist Sundt concluded, “reflects the Vietnam War.”

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