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Vets memorial moves closer to funding goal

Working for the past three years toward the reality of a local replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., veterans Ron Kohl, Russ McBride and state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, pause when they stop to think of those lost or affected by the Vietnam War.

Coordinators of the project say they won’t stop until the replica is built in Medford so veterans and their loved ones can visit, seek out names of friends and family and pay their respects.

Esquivel helped lobby for House Bill 5006, signed by Gov. Kate Brown in August, which provides $250,000 for the project. The wall is estimated to cost between $500,000 and $700,000. So far, $400,000 has been raised.

“They’re not all the way there yet, but I think the guys working for this for the last few years feel like they can see the light at the end of the tunnel," Esquivel said.

"This is a really important project because Vietnam veterans weren’t supported in a lot of ways. We weren’t supported by our government. We weren’t supported by the people. This wall is a real healing process not only for the soldiers but for society,” according to Esquivel, who said he served in Vietnam “seven days shy” of a year between 1969 and 1970.

Esquivel said stories from that time are heart-wrenching, such as the Applegate Valley's Rowden family, which lost two sons, James and John, to Vietnam.

“I know a lot of men that are on that wall. … I went to grade school with a kid whose name is on the wall, and a good friend from high school. Everybody you know knows somebody who lost someone to that war.”

Kohl, who served as a drill sergeant during the Vietnam War and regularly visits “the Wall” in D.C., said hurdles faced by project coordinators have been almost trivial considering the sacrifice of those whose names are etched onto the wall.

Kohl’s group, Southern Oregon Veterans Benefits, spent two years trying to secure a site before the Medford City Council approved a 25-year lease for 2.1 acres at U.S. Cellular Community Park near Coyote Trails Nature Center.

Fundraising efforts have included grant applications, a Kenny Rogers concert in 2016 and selling of bricks for the site.

Once work begins, construction is estimated to take four months. The wall, by Kohl’s latest estimate, will contain 58,479 names, with room to add more if other remains are found.

“I don’t care what service you were in or what you did. These were your brothers that have fallen and will be remembered,” said Kohl, noting that with more than 300,000 veterans in Oregon, a $10 donation from each would “more than complete this wall.”

“Whatever it takes, our board has made a commitment to each of those 58,479 names. Every time we get a little discouraged, one of us will say, ‘OK, go over there and pick a name and tell them you’re going to go ahead and bail out.’ And it’s never an option.”

Kohl said the group plans a golf tournament and will raffle off a 1965 Ford Fairlane.

Regular visits to the wall in Washington, D.C., Kohl said, remind him of the importance of having a similar memorial in the western half of the country.

“So many of these vets know these guys who they fought with and who have died. They go to this wall, and they put their hand on it, and you can tell that it takes them right back to their memories,” Kohl said.

“Once I said to a guy, ‘When you come here and you see the name, do you still see a face?’ and he said, ‘I sure do.’ ”

For information about the local project, see https://sovbmemorialwall.com/

To reach Kohl, email ron@sovbmemorialwall.com or call 541-500-1274.

— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

An artist's rendering of the entrance to the proposed Vietnam Veterans Memorial at U.S. Cellular Community Park in Medford. [Submitted photo]