Monday is Memorial Day in the United States. It has been a day since 1868 to honor American servicemen and women who have died in war. Many communities will mark the day with parades or memorial services. In Chicago, the National Vietnam Veterans' Art Museum will dedicate a new memorial sculpture.
A few blocks south of downtown Chicago, in a neighborhood where old factories and warehouses are being turned into apartments, Ned Broderick welcomes a group of schoolchildren to his museum. "Good morning. Welcome to the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. I am Ned Broderick, one of the artists," he said.
Mr. Broderick spent 19 months as a soldier in Vietnam beginning in 1966. "I like to draw, but I had no formal training," Mr. Broderick said. "In Vietnam, I would maybe draw cartoons on the back of guys' flak jackets [bullet-proof vests], that sort of thing."
After the war, Mr. Broderick went to art school in Chicago. In the early 1980's, he and two other art school students who served in Vietnam put on a show of war-related artworks. That and later shows attracted attention and artwork from other Vietnam veterans. In 1996, he opened the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, featuring works from more than 130 artists.
"There is no other institution in the world that has work related to the war that is done specifically by the combat soldiers," he said. "As one of our artists said one time: 'These are the men that pulled the triggers and pulled the hand grenades'."
The paintings, photographs, sculpture and poetry portray daily life for soldiers in Vietnam, as well as the emotional toll of the war.
One work painted by an Air Force officer and titled, "We Regret to Inform You," illustrates how the war touched families back in the United States.
"Here is some guy's mother, an older black woman sitting in a small kitchen in the rural South, [near a] broken window, bare light bulb. She has a red handkerchief across her face, crying. She has the letter from the government saying her son has been killed," he said. Mr. Broderick says North Vietnamese soldiers did several works in the museum. One is titled, "NVA on the Move."
"Here is a watercolor piece, North Vietnamese soldiers in the field, going down a streambed in dense jungle, where they will not be seen by helicopters or airplanes. This piece could easily be Americans," Mr. Broderick said.
The newest addition to the museum hangs over the atrium, and is seen by visitors just as they step through the entrance doors. It is a 12 x 3 meter sculpture made of what are called "dog tags" the small, metal identification tags worn around the necks of American servicemen and women. "There is 58,226 dog tags. Each one has the name of an American, the branch of service and the date they were killed," Mr. Broderick said. "They are in chronological order, from the first American killed in 1957 to the last one killed in 1975."
The tags are replicas of those worn by soldiers in Vietnam. Each hangs from the ceiling by a thin piece of wire. Vietnam veteran and memorial project manager Ricky Steinbock made the tags using an old stamping machine. The months spent turning out thousands of tags gave him time to think about the war and the people whose names he was typing.
"But what I started to think more about than the men and women who are up there are their families. Their families have suffered for all of these years," Mr. Steinbock said. "For the men, it is over with, and the only thing we can do is honor them, that is it. For the families, maybe we can give them some peace."
When the breeze from a heating or air conditioning vent passes through the sculpture, the small pieces of steel clink against each other. Mr. Steinbock says it gives him a feeling of the sculpture being alive. "It is an emotional piece. To have touched every name of every person that died in Vietnam is an honor that I will never again have in my life. I am 50-years-old, and I will never duplicate this again," he said.
The sculpture is titled, "Above and Beyond." It is the only permanent memorial to Vietnam veterans, other than the memorial wall in Washington, D.C., to include the names of all American servicemen and women killed in that war.