Just a few hours after Edmonds remembered fallen soldiers during the annual Memorial Day celebration, several hundred local veterans and community members gathered for another event aimed at honoring all who have served — a recognition and ribbon cutting for the new Edmonds Veterans Plaza at 5th and Bell
The event was both festive and solemn as the new space, three-plus years in the making, was officially unveiled for all to enjoy.
Edmonds resident and Vietnam veteran Ron Clyborne, who co-chaired the volunteer committee that oversaw the plaza project, called it “a place where veterans can connect with their thoughts, their past and one another.”
“It will stand as a lasting tribute to the patriotic and courageous men and women who have served this nation,” Clyborne added.
Clyborne thanked his co-chair, Maria Montalvo, for her efforts to raise 30 percent of the $700,000-plus the committee generated for the project, a cooperative effort involving the City of Edmonds, the Edmonds VFW Post 8870, Edmonds American Legion Post 66 and the local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.
He also recognized former VFW Post 8870 Commander Jim Traner, who came up with idea for the plaza more than three years ago after realizing that Edmonds was the largest city in Snohomish County without a dedicated place to honor men and women who served.
With the mission statement of “Honoring All Veterans Past, Present and Future,” the focal point of the design is a long stone wall, approximately 4 feet high, divided into 10- to 12-foot sections. There is flowing waterfall between the sections and included on the wall are symbols of the five military service branches. A separate wall remembers local veterans who sacrificed their lives.
There are also benches and stone seating cubes throughout the site, as well as a small memorial garden for remembrance and reflection.
Speakers during Monday’s dedication included two elected officials — Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling and State Rep. Strom Peterson — along with retired Air Force Lt. General Robert Otto. Pastor Barry Crane of North Sound Church, a Navy veteran, gave the invocation.
Lt. Gen. Otto noted that after the Korean War, then President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order that led to a pledge by U.S service members “to guard our country and our way of life.”
“They pledged to give their life in our defense,” Otto said. “Many have. Our pledge must be to remember their sacrifice. And that is why this Edmonds Veterans Plaza offers something different. This plaza grew from gratitude and made it tangible.”
Otto also told stories of three veterans he met — each of whom had served in different wars but all sharing the same gratitude when they were recognized for their service. One of them was a Vietnam veteran named John LaHue, who as an unmarried soldier often volunteered for more dangerous missions so that the married soldiers who had families to support wouldn’t be put at risk, Otto said.
During one particular mission, LaHue saved many soldiers’ lives, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, the fourth highest medal given by the Air Force for voluntary heroism. Yet, when LaHue returned to the U.S.after his tour of duty, he was greeted by protesters “who spat on him and the other returning troops,” Otto said. “He remembers a very ugly welcome home.”
And when LaHue’s Distinguished Flying Cross award arrived in the mail a few months later, there was no ceremony or recognition, and the veteran “just tossed it in a box,” Otto recalled.
Forty one years later — in 2012 — Otto presented LaHue with his medal, complete with full military honors. “It was a symbolic opportunity to honor and remember all veterans but particularly those from Vietnam,” Otto said.
Edmonds resident Michael Reagan, a Vietnam combat medic who served in the Marines, told the crowd he remembered “people spitting on me and calling me names” after he arrived home from the war.
He also recalled walking to Seattle’s University District as 35,000 anti-war protesters took to the freeway. “I ran home scared,” Reagan said. “And I ran away from being a Vietnam veteran as fast as I could because I still had a life to live.”
Eventually, though, Reagan’s passion for veterans and skills as a artist led him to found the Fallen Heroes project, where he creates — free of charge — portraits of fallen soldiers for their families. To date, Reagan has completed over 4,800 portraits.
He has also received many accolades for his work, including from the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation through its 2015 Citizen Honors Program.
Often, after he has finished drawing for the day, Reagan will take long walks from his Meadowdale-area home to downtown Edmonds.
“I’ve been walking down here for years,” Reagan said, clearing his throat and holding back tears. “I’ve never felt like I’ve come home.” With the completion of the Veterans Plaza, “today I feel like I’m home. And it’s the people from my city who made that possible.”
During his speech, Reagan also made a surprise presentation to Sydney Zvara, daughter of Navy veteran Lt. Stuart H. Smith, who served a a frogman in World War II. Smith, a long-time Edmonds School District teacher, coach and administrator, died in 2010.
— Story and photos by Teresa Wippel