TIMES SQUARE — NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly and FDNY Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, both Vietnam veterans, honored their fellow servicemen at a Times Square memorial ceremony on Tuesday.
The event, which featured a half-scale replica of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., was the first in a series of ceremonies to be hosted during the coming month by The History Channel's upcoming series, "Vietnam in HD," and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
During their remarks, both commissioners noted their sense of duty to remember those who died, and spoke of the recent 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“What it was, as much as anything,” Kelly said, referring to the anniversary, “was a reminder of the power of remembrance.”
“We owe it to those who died that we remember; we owe it to them that we tell their stories of how and why they gave their lives; and we owe it to them that we honor the ideals by which they lived,” the NYPD commissioner and Marine Corps veteran added.
Cassano, who served in the Army, reminded audience members that Americans have not always demonstrated their appreciation for Vietnam veterans.
“When I came home in 1967, we were forgotten,” the fire commissioner recalled. “Finally, we are being recognized for what we’ve done.”
Tom Van Etten, 68, of Queens, was one of only a handful of veterans who turned out for the ceremony in Times Square. Now a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, local chapter 32, Van Etten said he spent decades trying to bury his experiences in the war.
“I didn’t want anything to do with Vietnam anymore; I just wanted to forget about it,” he explained.
But Van Etten said he was overwhelmed by emotion when he first visited the national memorial.
“[As the walls got higher], I started to realize, these are all people who died in Vietnam,” the construction battalion vet remembered. “I really became overwhelmed. I just started crying.”
One purpose of the memorial campaign is to publicize a call for photopraphs of those whose names are featured on the wall, so that they can be included in the upcoming Education Center at the Wall, which is expected to break ground in 2012. Mayor Michael Bloomberg also threw his support behind the project by attending Tuesday's event.
The pictures are part of an effort to “personalize the sacrifice” of those who died, according to Vietnam Veterans of America President John P. Rowan.
Rowan predicted that many would be shocked by how young the men in the pictures look.
“You look at all these faces, frozen in time at 19 and 20… The older guys were 22,” he commented.
Organizers of the forthcoming Education Center want to collect photos for all of the fallen soldiers who are listed on the memorial, but they are still missing more than 35,000, according to a statement.
Of the 58,272 people whose names are etched on the wall, 1366 hailed from New York City.