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High School students work for memorial to alumni killed during Vietnam war

The grave of Marine Corps Lance Corporal Terence Kilbane, one of 15 Valley Forge High School graduates who died in Vietnam, at Arlington National Cemetery.

ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY

By BRIAN ALBRECHT | The Plain Dealer, Cleveland | Published: November 23, 2018

PARMA HEIGHTS, Ohio (Tribune News Service) — There was a time when young Americans fresh out of high school were killed by the thousands.

These include 15 alumni of Valley Forge High School who died during the war in Vietnam.

Their names were affixed to an honor roll plaque that has hung in the school for decades.

But in May of 2017, about 20 Valley Forge students decided that something more could and should be done to honor the memory of those fallen alumni.

So these members of the school’s history club embarked on a campaign to fund and build a new, larger memorial that will be erected outside the school and dedicated next spring.

The project originated from a history lesson about the war, when teacher Amy Byrne showed students an essay written by a former Valley Forge student, Clark Dougan, for the book “Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides.”

Dougan, class of 1967, knew some of the classmates who had gone to war and died.

In his essay, he said he was particularly struck by a front-page Cleveland Press story that the late columnist Dick Feagler had written about the death of one of those students, Gregory Fischer, in 1968.

“It just hit me like a hammer,” he wrote.

The essay prompted students to take a look at the school’s plaque, “and we realized this is not enough,” said Adriana Contiu, 16. “How can we just have this small plaque to remember these few teenagers who gave up their lives?

“So we decided we need to do something more.”

Byrne recalled that initially the students were thinking of a small, simple design, “but as we started to raise money and realized how much was coming in, and how popular the project was, that’s when we realized we could do more.

“We weren’t sure we could even raise a few thousand dollars, and we’ve raised over $9,000 at this point,” she added.

The students collected donations at lunch periods and basketball games, sold candy bars, and slowly the word got out about their project and the money rolled in.

They met with former students going back to the 1960s, and local veterans groups regarding possible designs.

“We wanted to go as big as we could for this memorial,” said Elise Vallee, 16. “We wanted to get really unique and noticeable.”

The names of the 15 alumni to be memorialized are: Preston Mentall, Terry Davis, Terence Kilbane, Ronald Kerner, Edward Heifner, Gregory Fischer, Thomas Ewalt, Carl Ange, Jeffery Whitcomb, Daniel McGrath, Edward Scott Jr., William Rollason, Phillip Molina, Ronald Becksted and Thomas Zelenka.

Creation of the monument is being handled by Kotecki Family Memorials.

Edward Kotecki, president, said the monument, about six feet high, will be made of gray and black granite. Fabrication should take about eight weeks.

The monument will consist of three tiers. One part bears the names of the fallen Valley Forge students. Another displays all the U.S. military service emblems.

The third section states that the memorial, which will be erected outside where the school flagpole stands, was created, “In honor of the Valley Forge alumni who served and sacrificed their lives during the Vietnam conflict.”

It also has a quote from Clark Dougan’s essay: “The only tribute you could really pay and still pay, is to remember.”

Kotecki said he has noticed that there have been an increasing number of Vietnam memorials commissioned in recent years.

But “this is the first I can remember where basically some or all of the money was raised by students,” he added. “I think that has a lot of meaning . . . that they’re going to be honoring past students who lost their lives.”

Kevin Kilbane, 62, of Strongsville, still remembers when the family was told that his brother, Terence, had been killed in Vietnam in 1967.

“The family sort-of got ripped apart,” he said. “I was a 10-year-old kid. Mom just sat in the house and cried day and night. My dad was a [Cleveland] homicide detective and I remember him sitting in back yard, just staring at the sky.

“I didn’t want to be at home, because home wasn’t fun.”

But he also remembers the big brother who never got upset with him; a guy he could wrestle with, “goofing around and stuff. Just a real nice guy.”

When he heard about the students’ plans for the memorial, “to be honest, I was sort-of blown away,” he said. “You’re talking about a war 50 some years ago. For them to take an interest in it, that moved me.

“It’s a great way to remember these guys, and remember ALL the guys who gave their lives for freedom,” he added.

Clark Dougan, who has extensively written about the war in Vietnam, was similarly surprised when contacted for his permission to use his quote on the monument.

He agreed, and has since helped raise money for the project.

In his essay that prompted the project, Dougan, now living in Boston, wrote about life at Valley Forge High School during the war, as former students’ deaths in Vietnam were solemnly announced over the school intercom.

“I think we sensed that we were all pawns of forces much larger than we were, and over which we had no control,” he wrote.

Dougan recently said Feagler’s column seemed to represent a time when “middle America,” turned against the war as the losses hit home.

“The reality and immediacy of it [the war] was unescapable, particularly at schools like Valley Forge that paid a disproportionate price in that war,” he said.

“No matter whether you served or didn’t serve, the war was always there, and its impact on a generation was real.”

Valley Forge alum (class of ’66) and Vietnam-era veteran Jerry Wilson, 71, of Parma, knew three of the students whose names will be engraved on the memorial: Terence Kilbane, Ronald Kerner and Thomas Zelenka.

“They were all good guys, very active in school, and they all had a lot of friends,” he said.

After learning about the monument project, Wilson got involved in fund-raising efforts, contacting former classmates for their support.

In commenting on the need for the memorial, Wilson said, “The people I knew, they need to be recognized. It was a very controversial war, but that wasn’t their fault. They were just doing what they were told to do.”

The monument matters, as a symbol of all veterans who served in the war, according to Wilson.

As he noted, “Every day we lose some veterans from Vietnam, so it’s important to get this up and get it done.”

Several of the students involved in the project have grandfathers who served during the war in Vietnam.

They’ve heard stories from them about the controversy surrounding the war at the time.

But now, “it’s 50 years later and we can look back and finally do something positive, and talk about it, and have ceremonies about it, and have memorials about it,” Byrne said.

“So it’s a different tone for a different generation.”

Elise Vallee, noted, “We still think that these people (Vietnam veterans) are important, and what they did was important because they chose to put their lives at risk because they thought that was best for our country.”

The community has joined in their effort. Byrne noted that the city cleared the memorial site, and contractors – often alumni and Vietnam vets – have donated materials and labor to the project.

“This project has grown into such a big thing for the community, it’s really cool to see,” Valee said.

Byrne said that beyond the memorial, the group of students might get involved in such future projects as helping living Vietnam veterans.

When asked what they hoped people would take away from the memorial after seeing it, Kayla Kucera mentioned the inscribed “remember” quote the monument will bear.

“We just want people to remember who died in this war . . . because that’s really all you can do,” she said.

“We’re looking at it [the war] from a completely different era and a different perspective. I don’t think we fully understand what it means to everybody, but we know it’s important.”

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