The city held its official Veterans Day ceremony last Tuesday at the new Soldier Field. It was, city officials proclaimed, a twofer event--a chance to honor vets, and a chance to show off the war memorials that were part of the $680-million project. "Before, Soldier Field was just a name," 11th Ward alderman James Balcer, a Vietnam vet, told reporters that day. "Now, it's a memorial to the men and women who have served our nation."
Barry Romo, who served in the infantry in Vietnam, didn't attend that ceremony. He and about 50 of his friends, fellow veterans, and allies held their annual Veterans Day ceremony where they have for two decades--at the intersection of Wabash and Wacker. Not the precise location of the previous ceremonies--Heald Square, the pedestrian island in the middle of Wacker just west of Wabash--because it's now gone.
On a particularly dreary Veterans Day in 1982, Mayor Jane Byrne dedicated a fountain on Heald Square to Vietnam vets. It was placed just west of Lorado Taft's statue of three Revolutionary War heroes: George Washington, Robert Morris, and Haym Salomon. Byrne proudly recalls that it was one of the country's first monuments to Vietnam vets. Dozens of veterans stood in the rain that day while Cardinal Joseph Bernardin offered an invocation and Byrne made a speech. She also put a time capsule containing the names of Chicago-area soldiers who'd died in the war and a letter from President Ronald Reagan commending the city for remembering the vets in the wall at the foot of the fountain.
"From that point on we always had our ceremonies here," says Romo, a longtime member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.
Then in 2001 the city removed the fountain and Taft's statue as part of the Wacker reconstruction project. When the project was finished earlier this year Heald Square had been paved over, and Taft's statue had been installed on the northwest corner of Wabash and Wacker next to the bridge. But the Vietnam veterans' memorial fountain wasn't reinstalled anywhere.
Romo complained, and city officials finally admitted that they didn't know where the fountain and the time capsule were. They said they planned to erect a new memorial to Vietnam vets below the Wabash bridge along the Chicago River. (City officials didn't return phone calls asking for an update.)
Romo wasn't surprised the city had lost track of the memorial. He puts it down to indifference, the same kind of indifference that "sent young men and women off to die with great fanfare, only to forget about them when they return. It's an old story. But we won't forget. We will return to this site every year, because it is hallowed ground to us."
And so last week he was there with two friends from the Vietnam war, Bill Davis and Peter Zastrow. "I have a son in the army and a son in the Naval Academy," Zastrow said in a speech. "Years ago I used to give speeches about why we were in Vietnam. And mothers would ask me, Did my son die in vain? That's a real tough question to answer."
After the ceremony Davis, Romo, and Zastrow posed in front of the
Taft statue, linking hands like Washington, Salomon, and Morris. Then they packed up their sound system. "We'll be back next year," Romo said. "Let's hope the city finds our fountain by then."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.