More than 58,000 Americans died as a result of the Vietnam War, from the American exit in 1975 stretching back to its genesis decades earlier. Twenty-eight of those American troops identified as killed in the line of duty were from Orange County, Texas. And Vietnam veteran Jerry Gatch refuses to let them be forgotten.
Gatch is commander of the Stark ’64 Veterans Association of Orange. He leads a group originally for veterans from the Lutcher Stark High School Class of 1964 but now open to all veterans. He and the association, along with numerous volunteers from the community, have been working on a special remembrance for those soldiers who died serving in Vietnam. They are building a memorial.
“The whole idea was, every time one of these memorials are built somewhere, it ends up being a list of names, maybe with the date they died. That’s about all,” Gatch explained. “And that is not enough. Those were real people. They were our people; they were from Orange County. We owe them more than that.”
Gatch’s group has been planning the Orange County Vietnam War Memorial for some time. The endeavor is now scheduled for a dedication ceremony Aug. 10. The project is a private undertaking partially funded by sales of the book “28 Men Fell.” The remainder of the funding for the project came entirely from private donors, Gatch said. It was constructed utilizing deep discounts from many local vendors and an estimated 95 percent volunteer labor and equipment. Gatch said even with discounts and equipment donations, the completed project will cost $35,000. He said the group is still taking donations, and tribute plaques for the fallen heroes and engraved bricks honoring Vietnam veterans are available for sale at $300 and $60, respectively. Copies of the book “28 Men Fell,” which details the lives and deaths of the 28 Orange County troops killed in the Vietnam War, will be available for sale at the dedication. Gatch said with every printing, the next being the fourth, he has received new information regarding the men featured in the book, so every printing has had something new so far.
Gatch pointed out the memorial being built by his group has some unique differences from other memorials. Laser-engraved granite plaques for each of the 28 men who died are displayed on the wall ledge of the memorial leading to a large mural of a Vietnamese landscape. Each plaque has the man’s picture, where available, and a brief profile and the manner of the soldier’s death in Vietnam. The memorial includes original Vietnam War murals painted by local artist Tom Windham, who volunteered his time for the project. His daughter Melissa Neill is assisting him with the murals.
“He is a rare talent in these parts,” Gatch said of Windham.
Windham said he was happy to volunteer his time. He did not serve in Vietnam because his number was high on the draft list, he said, but he knew several people who did.
“So many of my buddies went to Vietnam,” Windham said. “I look back and see how terribly they were treated when they got back from the war. This is just to honor them and the men from Orange County who died. It gives us a chance to do something for them.”
Another interesting feature of the memorial is that the flag of the extinct Republic of South Vietnam will fly alongside the Stars and Stripes representing the United States. Gatch said the reason behind including the South Vietnamese flag is both flags were flown at military installations in South Vietnam during the war. According to Gatch, the yellow and red bars were the basis of the Vietnam Service Medal worn by all those who served there.
Gatch said he will never forget the men he served with in Vietnam, and he is grateful for their sacrifices.
“They died in some very gruesome ways; it’s all in the book (“28 Men Fell”),” Gatch said. “One man, Major Dupree, was a helicopter pilot. He stayed inside his helicopter when it was shot and took it down into the water because he did not want the enemy to get it. When they pulled up the helicopter, he was still strapped into the pilot’s seat. That shows bravery.”
The Aug. 10 dedication ceremony is scheduled to include remarks by a distinguished retired sergeant major who served three tours in Vietnam, the Texas Military Team, a brass band, a 21-gun salute, taps and full flag protocols. Gatch said it is intended as a tribute to the 28 local men who died in the war of the “baby-boomer generation.”
The Orange County Vietnam War Memorial is in the Vidor Lions Club Fields of Freedom Veterans Park – one mile east of downtown Vidor on the I-10 service road. To donate or purchase bricks or tribute plaques, contact Jerry Gatch by phone at (409) 920- 4601 or e-mail thegatcher [dot] gatch [at] gmail [dot] com.