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Chronic Neglect of Vietnam Memorial Just Part of Kansas City’s Mixed Bag of Problems
A Vietnam Memorial Visitor Recognizes a Friend's Name on the Wall of Honor. (McClure file image)

Opinion by Tom Bogdon

If you are thinking of U.S. military veterans on Veterans Day—or even of just one particular veteran—try to stop by the Kansas City Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Wednesday November 11 about 11 a.m. for a simple ceremony and to see the memorial fountain in its best condition in more than a year.

Located at 43rd and Broadway, the memorial was dedicated in 1985 to the memory of more than 500 area men and women killed in action, or otherwise lost, in the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s. The names of these casualties are carved into a granite Wall of Honor that is the focus of the memorial. And, yes, these fallen troops are from all parts of the Kansas City metropolitan area, on both sides of state line.

The design of the Memorial is based on that of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, with the added feature here of fountains and reflecting pools recognizing Kansas City’s heritage as a City of Fountains. The Washington memorial has more than 50,000 carved names, and is one of the most visited sites in our nation’s capital.

Maintenance problems with the Kansas City memorial have been ongoing for more than a year, and came into focus in the Memorial Day observance last spring, when a large number of attendees, including Vietnam veterans, noticed ugly black splotches on the off-white bottoms of the reflecting pools. One Vietnam veteran felt that something had to be done about this disrespectful neglect—and sooner rather than later.

This veteran mentioned his concern to KCTribune.com, which led to three prior Tribune editorials, one just after Memorial Day, a second about three weeks later, and then a third a week ago. The first pointed out the problem, and the second quoted a Parks Department official as saying the problem of the splotchy pool bottoms would be corrected in a month or two, certainly by fall.

In the last couple of weeks, trees have been changing colors, and there has been a nip of fall in the air. This reporter paid a visit to the Vietnam Memorial, only to find that the fountains had been turned off and the reflecting pools drained. But the large black splotches were still there, uglier than ever. That was a week ago Tuesday.

Last Thursday I wrote the third editorial, noting that it was fall, and nothing had been done. Had I been lied to or gotten the Bureaucrat Shuffle? I wrote last week’s indignant editorial headlined, “Too Bad Our Vietnam Memorial Is Not a Swimming Pool.” The Idea was that if the Vietnam Memorial reflecting pools were a swimming pool, the maintenance problems would not require months to correct.

This past Tuesday, I visited the Vietnam Memorial again in advance of writing this article. Lo and Behold! Aqua Blue swimming pool paint had suddenly been applied to the bottoms of the reflecting pools, just as unsightly as before only in a different way. The aqua blue paint was showing signs of peeling in one spot only a couple of days after being applied.

I called the Parks Department official I had interviewed after Memorial Day, Michael Herron, manager of the natural resources division, and was told that the aqua blue swimming pool paint was applied by non-expert Parks Department swimming pool painters, not a specialty coatings contractor with the expertise to deal with the difficulties and challenges of the reflecting pool bottoms.

Herron said the problem had something to do with fulfilling the city’s three-contractor bidding requirement. Apparently this related to budget problems from declining tax revenues. But Herron said a black surface would be applied in the next few days over the aqua blue paint. Black was the color specified by the memorial architect, Herron added.

This temporary repair job would be completed by Veterans Day, and the fountains would be turned back on for the occasion. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial would be fully operational for Veterans Day, but Herron said he could not be sure about Memorial Day 2010.

Herron suggested that I speak to George Biswell, first vice president of the Kansas City Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, who also is a landscape maintenance inspector for the Parks Department.

“I go by there (the memorial) two or three times a week,” Biswell said. “That’s a very special place for me. I was shocked a week ago to see it painted aqua blue. I want to give the Parks Department the opportunity to follow through on the assessment, but we have to stay on them. I know funds are scarce."

Biswell said Mayors Dick Berkley, Emanuel Cleaver and Kay Barnes regularly attended Memorial Day and Veterans Day events at the Vietnam Memorial, and that Cleaver, now a member of Congress, still does.

“We invited Mayor Funkhouser for several years, but he has never shown up and we stopped inviting him,” Biswell said.

Biswell said that a group called “City of Fountains,” which has as its mission the betterment and maintenance of Kansas City fountains, has never addressed the problems of the Vietnam Memorial.

The strongest advocate of correcting the memorial’s long-term problems, Biswell said, is 4th District Councilwoman Jan Marcason, who “has friends on the Wall,” Biswell added.

Marcason is working to secure a PIAC grant of $200,000 per year for three years to overhaul the Vietnam Memorial and Fountain as outlined in the Parks Department’s assessment and architect’s plan. Biswell said VVA expects a decision on the PIAC grant after the first of the year.

Meanwhile, Veterans Day activities are expected to proceed at the memorial as usual on the 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month, what was formerly called Armistice Day. Biswell said that as usual a high school Marine Corps ROTC color guard will post the colors.

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