Vietnam Veterans Memorial Finally Breaks Ground in Elmhurst Park

 An attendee waves an American flag at the Forest Hills Memorial Day Parade. Photo via the office of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

An attendee waves an American flag at the Forest Hills Memorial Day Parade. Photo via the office of Queens Borough President Melinda Katz.

By David Brand and Jonathan Sperling

Queens Daily Eagle

More than 40 years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War — and more than 10 years after fundraising began — a new memorial will rise in Elmhurst Park to honor those who served and those who sacrificed their lives in Southeast Asia.

Elmhurst Park will host the groundbreaking ceremony tomorrow at 12:30 p.m.

“It’s been a long haul and the result of a lot work from a lot of people,” said Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) National President John Rowand, a Middle Village resident who grew up in Elmhurst. “It’s recognition of the service of the men and women of Queens and it’s long overdue recognition.”

Rowand specifically cited the work of the late John Toro, a veteran and “prime mover of the project” who died in 2014.

Rowand enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1965 and attended the Air Force language school to learn Indonesian and Vietnamese in order to serve as a linguist in the Air Force. Rowand later graduated from Queens College and was founding president of the Queens VVA Chapter 32, which has worked to establish local memorials throughout Queens, including one that honors nine men from Elmhurst who were killed during the Vietnam War.

The Elmhurst Park memorial will be the first boroughwide Vietnam War landmark.

Rowand said the memorial represents the diversity of Queens’ Vietnam veterans, especially of the 420 people, who died serving in the Vietnam War.

“This memorial is really very representative of Queens . . . a lot of people on that wall aren’t citizens,” Rowand said. “It’s indicative of Queens then and now.”

Many immigrants from Queens served in the Vietnam War. Rowand said his close friend Jean Claude, an immigrant from France, was one of the first Queens residents to die in Vietnam in 1963. The Elmhurst memorial also includes a man from Lithuania and another from Colombia.

“Friends of mine in the military left the strife in Hungary, there was my friend, a guy from Cuba who went into the Marines,” he said. “There a lot of Spanish names on that wall.”

The groundbreaking ceremony has been a long time coming. Advocates first proposed the memorial and began fundraising nearly a dozen years ago. In 2008, Melinda Katz, then a city councilmember, secured $500,000 for its construction and in 2016, she announced the plan was fully funded.

“They battled for a long time,” said New York State VVA President Ned Foote. “There always seems to be some type of battle, but we always seem to win.”

The memorial holds particular relevance in Queens, the borough with the most veterans in New York City. More than 47,000 veterans call Queens home, according to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Rowand said he hopes the memorial will educate younger generations of Queens residents.

A total of 420 Queens residents lost their lives while serving in the Vietnam War, according to Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 32, which represents Vietnam War veterans of Queens and has pushed for the construction of the memorial.

The memorial’s design and construction is fully funded Katz, who allocated $2.3 million in capital funding between fiscal year 2017-18. It is expected to be completed in the fall of 2019 and will stand on the northwest corner of Elmhurst Park, located at the corner of Grand Avenue and 79th Street.