Phila. memorial had humble beginnings

After 20 yrs., the battle is to preserve landmark that honors the 646

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Veterans and others mass at the October 1987 dedication of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Penn's Landing.

THIS STORY WAS ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED OCTOBER 30, 2007

One day in 1983, Vietnam veteran Ronald D. Castille got together with three other men in a Center City bar to talk about how to honor Philadelphians killed in 'Nam.

In those days, a lot of Vietnam vets were hesitant to identify themselves as such.

Bitterness over the war that killed 58,209 Americans, and that so many people opposed, was still rife. Active-duty soldiers were reluctant to wear their uniforms in public.

It was in this atmosphere that Castille, a decorated Marine who lost his right leg in combat, met with Dennis Fink, Edward Lowry and Harry Gaffney to discuss what could be done for the men who made the ultimate sacrifice.

"City Council had approved placing a plaque in City Hall with the names of the dead from Philadelphia," he said, but he remembers thinking, "We've got to do better than a plaque."

"The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington was just finished and we were thinking we needed something like that in Philadelphia for our men."

Out of that informal get-together with Castille, then a deputy district attorney, later D.A. and now a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, came the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Fink, also a Vietnam vet and former assistant city managing director, became president of the fund; Gaffney, a city educator, became vice president; Lowry, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Veterans Multi-Service and Education Center, became treasurer.

Castille, who collected a Bronze Star for valor and two Purple Hearts for combat wounds as a 22-year-old Marine lieutenant in Vietnam, was secretary.

By reaching out to veterans organizations, corporations, unions, politicians, and by holding beef 'n' beers and other fundraisers, $600,000 was collected to build a lasting memorial to the men of Philadelphia lost in combat.

The site settled on over Interstate 95 at Penn's Landing was owned by the state Department of Transportation. PennDOT agreed to deed it to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation. After the memorial was built, it was turned over to the Fairmount Park Commission.

A group of Vietnam vets calling itself the "Last Patrol" went to Washington to trace the names of the Philadelphia dead on the Vietnam Memorial. The group, including men who had lost limbs in the war, then marched or navigated their wheelchairs back to Philly.

The monument was dedicated in 1987. It bears 646 names.

The Memorial Fund has a $2 million goal to restore and repair the aging monument, which has been damaged by weather and skateboarders. The drive is called a "Duty to Remember."

"Back in the '80s, people distanced themselves from the veterans," Castille said, "but now, people realize the sacrifices these young men made, what they did for their country. Their memory deserves to be preserved." *