Long-awaited Vietnam veteran memorial breaks ground at Oregon State Capitol

Shovels in hand, a row of local and state leaders looked to Steve Bates, president of the Vietnam Memorial Fund. He’d refused a shovel himself.

“I give the orders,” he said into the bullhorn, drawing laughter from the over 100 gathered outside the Oregon Capitol Friday. Many were in uniform or wearing hats to show their military service.

On Bates’ command, the shovelers turned the dirt on the grounds of the Capitol, as he called out each military branch that served in Vietnam to cheers from the crowd. The event marked the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial project, an honor years in the making to recognize the sacrifices made by soldiers who were not welcomed home upon their return. 

Steve Bates, president of the Vietnam Memorial Fund, speaks during the groundbreaking ceremony at Willson Park on Friday, March, 29, (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

About 2,700 Vietnam War-era veterans live in Salem, according to 2021 Census data, and around 94,000 throughout the state. Some attended the groundbreaking ceremony.

“It’s a great relief. It’s been seven long years,” Bates said to Salem Reporter, who said he was “enthralled” by the day’s turnout.

The Salem chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America first raised the idea for the exhibit in 2015, and Bates was tasked with spearheading the idea. He and other supporters of the project got it started in 2017 with help from state Rep. Paul Evans, a Monmouth Democrat and Air Force veteran who serves on the House Committee on Veterans and Emergency Management.

In July 2021, the state Legislature passed Senate Bill 319 which established the memorial on the Capitol grounds which then-Gov. Kate Brown signed into law.

Since its inception, the memorial’s planned location moved from the northeast corner of Willson Park to the corner of Southeast Cottage Street and State Street. The location is better, Bates said, and it’s also near the “embracing tree” whose low, bent limbs gave some ceremony attendees a place to sit. 

Veterans in uniform in the crowd at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial at Willson Park on Friday, March, 29 (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

A steering committee overseeing the exhibit’s design included veterans, historians, historical interpreters, public officials and representatives from Oregon’s Vietnamese and other southeast Asian communities, according to Bates. The design was guided using public input submitted last summer.

“We’re going to upgrade the park with this memorial, and by doing so we’ll also be honoring our Vietnam veterans,” Bates said.

Portland artist Libby Carruth was asked to depict a returning soldier, and spoke to Vietnam veterans to hear their stories. She thought of the visible wounds like amputations, but also the lasting mental impacts of service. She has an uncle who has never told anyone what he experienced there.

“PTSD wasn’t a thing yet, they had no resources,” she said.

The design for the bronze and granite sculpture shows a soldier standing in front of an American flag with a hand over his chest. From the back, it looks like he has his hand over his heart to pledge allegiance to it.

“But as you walk around it, as the viewer, you can then gaze into his face and see he’s actually clutching at himself in pain, and you don’t know what he’s been through,” she said. “It’s intentionally ambiguous what he’s feeling, because they didn’t talk about it. And they don’t owe us an explanation, they should have gotten support, but they didn’t.”

Portland artist Libby Carruth and a model of “A Soldier’s Return” which will be built in life-size at the Oregon Capitol to honor Vietnam veterans (Abbey McDonald/ Salem Reporter)

The interpretive panels at the memorial will provide facts and context about the Vietnam War and the role of Oregonians in the conflict, which was highly divisive in the U.S. There were over 700 Oregonians killed in action and four Oregon families who each lost two sons in the war, which spanned from November 1955 to May 1975.

Organizers handed out commemorative pins with the Capitol building on them, and front table displayed a framed proclamation from Governor Tina Kotek naming March 30, 2024 “Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day.” The last of the U.S. troops left Vietnam on March 30, 1973, according to the proclamation.

Also on the table was a donation box which attendees filled with cash after the ceremony, and pre-labeled bottle return bags to take home for further fundraising. One attendee approached Bates afterward offering a $1,000 donation, which earned him one of the shovels.

The project got $400,000 for the state legislature this year, meeting the funding required for Phase 1, which is the sculpture, engraved granite columns and a gathering plaza. The total cost was $3.6 million.

Phase two includes benches honoring the Rowden, Wright, Evans and Johnson families who lost two sons in the war, a statue depicting a nurse tending to a soldier, and a garden.

Other exhibits will honor Oregonians who received Purple Hearts, those Missing in Action and Prisoners of War. There will also be a Persian Gulf War Memorial and a plaque for the over 6,000 Gold Star Families in the state. 

Phase 2 has an estimated cost of $2 million. Bates said they plan to finalize the constitution plans and determine the actual cost after Phase 1 is completed. There is an option to donate online.

Construction will begin in May or June. Bates said they plan to finish Phase 1 this year.

“It’s going to get done, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, to applause.

Veterans from the Mid-Willamette Valley at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial at Willson Park on Friday, March, 29 (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
Veterans on Friday March, 29, showing up for the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial at Willson Park (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
Attendees waving flags on Friday March, 29, during the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial at Willson Park (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)
A veterans salutes during the Pledge of Allegiance at the ceremonial groundbreaking of the Vietnam War Memorial at Willson Park on Friday, March, 29, (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-575-1251

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.