The 76 names of McLennan County veterans etched in black granite on the Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be read aloud at sunset Friday, kicking off Memorial Day weekend.
“It’s just a way to get people together and remember,” Manuel Sustaita said. “Our saying is, ‘To remember is to honor.’ ”
Sustaita led the 16-year effort to establish the Waco memorial to area veterans who died in the Vietnam War.
People will gather at 7 p.m. at the memorial at the corner of Washington Avenue and University Parks Drive.
The Vietnam Veterans of America Heart of Texas Chapter 1012 is the lead sponsor of the event, joined by the Waco Citizens for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the American GI Forum and other veteran groups.
Sustaita said visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., in 1986 inspired him to create a memorial in Waco. Each veteran has his or her own way of remembering and honoring other veterans, and he wanted to create a positive place for that remembrance, he said.
“I just wanted to be in a good feeling, being able to have a place where family and friends can go,” Sustaita said. “There’s something there all the time.”
The memorial eventually was dedicated in 2004.
Waco residents Anthony Fulbright and Nona Kirkpatrick visited the memorial Monday. Several names on the memorial stuck out to them as former classmates, friends and neighbors.
“So many people from Waco gave the full measure of devotion to this,” Kirkpatrick said.
Gary Urban, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Air Force, said he has seen greater appreciation for servicemen and women returning from combat recently than he saw in the Vietnam era. Urban said he recognized the shift when his son returned from serving in Iraq.
Henry Kasper, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy, agreed with Urban, his friend.
“That didn’t get old,” Kasper said. “Every time a plane landed with soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, there were big mobs at that airport.”
The guest of honor at Friday’s event is Melissa Gentsch, the daughter of Robert L. Howard, who was one of the most highly decorated Americans in the Vietnam War. He was a 1971 Medal of Honor recipient who died in Waco in 2009.
“This means a lot to me, simply because I know what it meant to my father,” Gentsch said. “Nowadays it seems like with Memorial Day, we seem to think of it in terms of a vacation day, a summer holiday. I think with this get-together, it’s to show our respect for what it really means, which is honoring those who served and died while serving.”
Sustaita said the names of the veterans will still be called out in the event of rain.
If you go
What: Reading of names listed on Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial
Where: Vietnam Veterans Memorial at corner of University Parks Drive and Washington Avenue