You can leave war behind, but war never leaves you. You always carry the memories of the guys who never made it home.
And as the years go on, "you start thinking about how much time you have left to do something for these guys," says John MacGillivray. So, with a handful of other vets, he set out to make sure the local guys killed in Vietnam are remembered.
MacGillivray describes Ed Carr as the visionary in the group, the man most responsible for Massachusetts's newest veterans memorial. In his office at the Framingham headquarters of the MetroWest Regional Transit Authority, Carr displays photos and memorabilia from his time in Vietnam. Next month, he'll have a nine-and-a-half foot soldier standing outside his window, keeping those memories alive long after he and his brother veterans have moved on.
War memorials these days tend to be slabs of engraved stone. The committee of veterans Carr put together wanted something bigger, something that told their story, something that would make it real. They wanted a soldier, and Jeff Buccacio created one for them.
Traditional military sculptures tend to be generals in heroic poses. Buccacio knows that style, having done restorations on the statue of General Draper seated high on his horse in downtown Milford and the 54th Regiment marching off to war at the edge of Boston Common. Buccacio and the veterans wanted something more accessible, a soldier who looked like someone you'd meet on the streets of any of our towns.
Buccacio found someone of the streets of Natick, his hometown, and knew right away Curtis Herald would be his model. But it was the four aging vets -- Carr, MacGillivray, Jack Arena and Warren Griffin - who brought the statue to life.
"They told me their stories," Buccacio says. "My job is to get in the heads and hearts of the guys who went through that war."
He liked the idea of a single soldier. Today, troops train, deploy and return in groups. "In Vietnam, they went in one man at a time," Buccacio says. "They were solitary men going in and solitary men coming out. They don't do that anymore."
The committee made the sculptor's vision real. They saw an early version Buccacio had fashioned in clay - a buff soldier who looked like he spent his days in a modern gym. But the heat, humidity and hard work took a toll on troops in Vietnam. "I lost 40 pounds while I was there," Carr recalls. So Buccacio took a few pounds off his soldier.
He also took off the soldier's flak jacket. It was too hot over there for that kind of thing. Too hot for helmets, too, he was told, so he gave the soldier a boonie hat -- with bug spray tucked into the hatband. Every detail was shaped to match the memories of those who wore that uniform, carried that weapon and witnessed war through those eyes.
The unnamed grunt stands tall in Buccacio's Canton studio, confident but not heroic. America doesn't remember Vietnam with images of conquest or statues of generals. We celebrate the service and sacrifice of ordinary Americans sent by their country to a far and dangerous place. Americans like you and me.
"I like to think someone's going to look at the memorial and say 'that looks like John, 70 pounds ago,'" MacGillivray says with a laugh. More seriously, he likes to think of service members coming back from Afghanistan, Iraq or some other dangerous assignment, seeing the memorial and knowing that their sacrifices will also be remembered.
Buccacio's clay model will soon be cast in bronze. It will take its place in a new park at the MWRTA headquarters, alongside the names of 61 service members from MetroWest communities killed in Vietnam, carved in black granite from the same quarries in India that supplied the stone for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The committee is planning a November dedication ceremony, and is seeking the public's help in finding family members of the service members honored, so their sacrifices can be recognized as well.
The generation of men and women who served in Vietnam may be aging, but they aren't dead yet. The four Marines who made this memorial happen are committed, energetic and influential enough to get $200,000 put in the state budget to pay for it. Vietnam divided Americans like no war before it, but we are united in honoring the intentions and sacrifices of those who fought there. For generations yet to come, a solitary bronze soldier on a grassy corner in Framingham will keep that spirit alive.
-- Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com. Like him on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.