Bob Kirkland was nearly in tears Friday as he stood outside the Center for America’s Veterans at an unveiling ceremony for the Vietnam War memorial on Mississippi State University’s campus.
The monument had been on MSU’s campus for more than 20 years, but several of the few dozen people gathered at the event — including Kirkland himself — had not know of its existence for many of those years.
Kirkland is a former Vietnam veteran and alumnus of MSU who played a critical role in having the memorial moved from its old, out-of-the-way location near Harned Hall to a more prominent spot behind the Center for America’s Veterans on Bailey Howell Drive.
On Friday, he said he was floored to see the newly-cleaned and relocated monument.
“It looks great,” he said. “It just means so much, I think, to the Vietnam veterans after such a hard time when we came back.”
Kirkland was drafted into service during the Vietnam War. He served as a sergeant in the Marine Corps and said his electrical engineering background from MSU saw him put to use in helping to coordinate communication efforts across Vietnam.
He initiated the effort to get MSU’s Vietnam memorial, which was erected in the early 1990s, moved to a more visible location on campus about a year ago. Kirkland said it started when Willard Round, a friend he attended MSU with in the 1960s and who was also a pilot with the 1st Marine Airwing in Vietnam, told him the memorial was on campus.
“I’d never seen it and wasn’t even aware of it,” Kirkland said.
Kirkland contacted Brian Locke, director of the Center for America’s Veterans, to ask about putting the memorial near the center. With Locke’s approval, Kirkland reached out to MSU President Mark Keenum, who put him in touch with Regina Hyatt, MSU’s vice president of Student Affairs. From there, it was a matter of coordinating the move, which Student Affairs funded.
At Friday’s ceremony, Locke said the memorial was conceptualized in 1986, when former MSU student Mark Taylor — who was in the Army ROTC at the university and also served as the “Bully” mascot at the time — noticed the university’s World War I memorial near Lee Hall and initiated fundraising efforts for a Vietnam memorial. Taylor’s father was a Vietnam veteran.
But Locke didn’t know any of that until Kirkland approached him about moving the memorial.
“I’ll be honest — and this is bad to say — I’ve been at Mississippi State for four and a half years, am the commander of the Army ROTC program and I had no idea this was even on campus,” he said.
An ‘accomplishment for all veterans’
Kirkland said Friday’s rededication ceremony was a far cry from the icy reception many Vietnam veterans received after returning to the United States following their service in the war. He and his wife, Rebecca, recalled the protests and jeers that awaited when he returned home.
“It was hard coming back because they were demonstrating against us and calling us names,” he said. “In fact (Rebecca) framed all my medals years later because I just put them in a drawer.”
Locke, who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, said he felt Friday’s ceremony, and the effort to better recognize those soldiers who died in the Vietnam War, is especially important because of that poor reception service members received.
The response Vietnam veterans received upon returning home, he said, was much worse than what he got when he came back from his tours.
“When I was landed in the airport, there were people lining both sides of the airport terminals, there were fireworks shooting water over us, you couldn’t go to a restaurant without people wanting to buy you something to eat or drink and there were parades,” Locke said. “It was a very different reception from what they received when they came back.”
Curtis Snell, a member of American Legion Post 240 and military veteran who served in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said he was proud to see the monument moved to the new location. Snell, who comes from a military family and has brothers who have served in several wars, including in Vietnam and in Korea, said all veterans, regardless of when or where they served, should be proud of the recognition Friday’s ceremony represented.
“To me, this is a major accomplishment for all veterans — everywhere, not just here,” he said. “I think this is a starting point to realize we’re all veterans and we’ve served and want the same thing for our country.”
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.
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