Nothing was simple about the war in Viet Nam. That era divided our society, and offered no easy answers for those who fought or for those who did not. Now 14 years have passed since the fall of Saigon, and more than 25 years since the war began, though it is even hard to pinpoint the beginning of that conflict.
As a society we have begun to look back to try to come to terms with that time. The Viet Nam war memorial in Washington, D.C. , has become a place of reconciliation and of healing for the hundreds of thousands of men and women who fought there. Problems stemming from post traumatic stress syndrome and exposure to the defoli­ant Agent Orange have begun to receive national attention. And Viet Nam veterans are coming together to try and make sense of their experience.
James C. Cage thinks the time has finally come to build a Viet Nam veterans memorial on the Island.
Mr. Cage is quick to downplay his own place in the plan. This is an idea that belongs to all the veterans, he says.
“Let’s not fight over it, let’s just build it,” he said.
Four years ago a group of Viet Nam veterans led by Woodrow Williams began work on a memorial. Conflict arose over whose names would be in­cluded on the monument, and where to build it. Finally after a year of dis­cussion and debate the plan was al­lowed to die.
Mr. Cage is just beginning, the plans are flexible, and he wants to include anyone who is interested in working on the project.
“My idea is to have no names at all, but we can accommodate anyone who feels strongly,” he said. “I just want it to encompass all of us who were there. The names are not important.”
He envisions a low wall with built-in benches and two flagpoles. In the cen­ter a plaque would read: “The Island of Martha’s Vineyard builds this mon­ument in honor of brave men and women, recording with grateful pride, that they found here a birthplace, home or grave. Viet Nam 19-- to 1975.”
Even the date of the war is open to discussion, he said.
The suggested site is over the culvert in front of Sunset lake in Oak Bluffs or elsewhere on the lake shore. From the two flagpoles the American and POW/MIA flags would fly. The Oak Bluffs selectmen have already accepted the plan in theory and encouraged Mr. Cage to work out the details.
Mr. Cage is optimistic the logistics can be settled, and the project can come together.
“There is even room for the Korean veterans if they want to get involved with this,” he said. “It’s possible to do it in time for the Memorial Day parade next year, we could dedicate it then. Basically the money is the biggest obstacle.”
The 1985 monument plan was bogged down by a dispute over who could be counted as an Island veteran. Some people argued that recent immi­grants to Martha’s Vineyard should not be included in the list of veterans.
The only war memorial on the Island that recognizes the service of Viet Nam and Korean veterans is the lone tribute to William Hagerty in West Chop, and a plaque in Memorial Park in Tisbury.
Erected in 1977, the plaque remembers the “men and women from the town of Tisbury who devotedly served in the armed forces of the United States,” and lists veterans from World War II, Korea, and Viet Nam. Mr. Cage was involved with that project, and he re­calls that people then told him that it couldn’t be done. The issue of whose name would be included was too divi­sive, they said.
“We just included everyone from Tisbury who felt they should be included,” he said. “We just published the list in the paper, and let people re­spond. We worked it out.”
That war divided the nation, and changed the way America viewed itself and the world, Mr. Cage said. He added that he hopes all veterans will agree that the men and women who gave their youth and often their lives in service of their country deserve recog­nition.
“Lots of people should be involved,” he said. “I just want to see it resolved with something nice.”
There should be plenty of space on the wall he is proposing to add plaques with names if people feel it is nec­essary, he said.
“This should be an Island-wide pro­ject,” he said.
Mr. Cage is an Oak Bluffs po­liceman. He served with a military advisory group in Plieku in 1966 and 1967, and was transferred out of Viet Nam just months before the Tet offen­sive which led to rapid escalation of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia.
“I don’t have any doubt that we can get this done,” he said. “We’ll just go with it for as long as it’s going to take.”