Hillside art in Grass Valley honors Vietnam vets
Special to The Union
A giant image of “Fallen Soldier” rises on a Grass Valley hillside in honor of all who served during the Vietnam War — in time for today’s nationwide observance of Vietnam Veterans Day.
Giant metal dog tags swing in the wind and bang against the 16-foot-high painting of a helmet atop an inverted rifle and empty boots. Motorists can see the creation from Highway 20/49 as they head north past Old Barn Self Storage, just past the Dorsey Drive interchange.
Old Barn already commemorates World War II veterans with an enormous reproduction of the iconic photo from the battle of Iwo Jima. Manager Lloyd Young wanted to expand the hillside tribute to honor vets from the Vietnam War, which shaped his own generation. With the blessing of Old Barn managing partner Stephen R. DeSena of Nevada City, and the help of artist buddy Steve Liserra of Nevada County, the mural went up on the hillside earlier this month.
“We hope with this project to encourage people to continue to show respect to our military and their families,” Young said.
The art is a personal tribute for both Young and Liserra. Young entered the U.S. Army Infantry in 1971 and continued in the Army Reserves. Liserra served in the National Guard starting in 1969.
“I owned those boots,” Liserra said. “I had that rifle.”
Liserra remembers the first high school friend who died in Vietnam: John Burke, “a really good guy,” Liserra said. That sparked an uneasy conflict of emotions: “He went. It was something you had to do,” Liserra recalled. “There were all these protesters. They just didn’t want to go.”
Both men view the war as an unfortunate but necessary struggle to keep America safe. Now, 44 years after the unpopular war’s end, their memorial offers some healing for the mistreatment and rejection many veterans experienced upon returning home.
The composition of helmet, rifle and boots — now called the battlefield cross or soldier’s cross — may have originated during the Civil War to mark the location of a fallen soldier, according to the Smithsonian Institution.
It evolved into a way of mourning the dead at base camp during the Korean War and gained popularity during the recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smithsonian reported. The image was popularized in 2004 by Baltimore sculptor Richard Rist, who makes bronze castings on commission. Rists’s “Fallen Soldier” inspired Liserra, he said.
Then-President Richard M. Nixon first called for a day honoring Vietnam Veterans on March 29, 1974 — a year after the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam under the Paris Peace Accords. In 2011, a Senate resolution declared March 30 as “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.” In 2012, then-President Barack Obama designated March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day.
More than 3 million Americans served in Southeast Asia during the eight years of direct military involvement, and more than 58,000 service members died. As many as 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians also perished.
Trina Kleist is a Grass Valley-based freelance writer whose clients include Old Barn Self Storage. She may be contacted at email@example.com or (530) 575-6132.
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