Memorial being built in Lower Burrell for Valley's Vietnam fallen
About 100 sons of the Alle-Kiski Valley died in Chu Lui, Quang Tri, Phuoc Binh and many other nameless Vietnam battlegrounds more than 40 years ago.
Now, on Memorial Day, many of the Valley's Vietnam veterans are getting behind a fundraiser to permanently honor the men with a memorial that will be erected near a Vietnam-era helicopter at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 92 in Lower Burrell.
The concept of “Remember Them” is to put all 97 names on a single memorial to honor them as well as all of the men and women who served in Southeast Asia.
“The men were from Kittanning to Verona, and Saltsburg to Saxonburg, and they died serving their country,” said Tom Rushnock, a Vietnam veteran from New Kensington.
“Most of us knew many of these guys, and they sacrificed their lives for all of our freedoms,” he said.
Rushnock expects the monument to cost $15,000 to $20,000.
“We're maybe halfway there,” he said.
Tickets are being sold for an August picnic fundraiser, and donations are being collected.
Rushnock said a steering committee will meet this week with designers to get an idea of how to best honor the Valley men who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The committee is seeking corporate sponsors. But most of the money will come from people — veterans and non-veterans — said Vietnam veteran Robert Body, VFW Post 92's junior vice president who like Rushnock served in the Air Force.
“This isn't just for veterans,” Rushnock said.
“At the end of the celebration, we will read the names of all of the 97, a bell will chime each time, and then we will play taps,” said Clair Ewing, a Navy veteran of Vietnam, who commands Legion Post 868.
Legion and VFW officers Tom Bridgen, who served in the Army and Air Force Reserve, and Carl Baker, Navy veteran of the war, said the program will likely begin with an honor guard from the local Marine Corps League detachment.
Armand Latour, originally of Brackenridge and now from Ross, will bring hundreds of photos he took while serving in Vietnam from 1966 through 1968.
Latour met some Brackenridge soldiers overseas and knew Army Sgt. Robert L. Adams, one of the Valley's first to die in Vietnam.
“He lived on Summit Street in Tarentum,” Latour said. “I knew him since we were 7 or 8, and the last time I saw him was at the Tarena (roller rink in Tarentum).
“In basic training, I got a letter saying he was killed. Then, when I was shipped overseas, we used drive down that same road to Saigon,” Latour said. Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City.
Adams was the third A-K Valley solider to die in the war.
Reactions across the A-K
Positive comments about the planned memorial are coming from the four counties of the Valley.
Karl Rykaczewski, now of Upper St. Clair, was a high school freshman living in the Natrona section of Harrison when his brother, 1st Lt. Stanley Rykaczewski, was shot to death after an airborne assault on Jan. 17, 1963 near Phuoc Binh.
The soldier was a graduate of St. Joseph High school and Penn State University.
“I'm really grateful for the A-K Valley remembering him,” Karl Rykaczewski said. “It speaks about the Valley's deep patriotism, and I'm really grateful.”
Army Spc. 4 Martin W. Weleski III, whose hometown was Cabot, Winfield, died from enemy fire on Jan. 9, 1968 in Quang Tri Provence.
The 19-year-old Weleski was only two weeks from turning 20 and was buried about the time of his birthday, recalls his sister, Barbara Pfluger, of Saxonburg.
Weleski was a 1965 Knoch High School graduate.
“Four or five of his classmates also died in Vietnam,” Pfluger said. “It's amazing after so much time for someone to remember them.”
Weleski's name already appears on a Butler County memorial in a small park across the street from the courthouse in Butler.
Saltsburg was the hometown for Marine Sgt. Leslie Paul Hagara.
He died in Quang Tri Provence on April 16, 1968, after a fight with the enemy.
His older brother, Chuck Hagara, also Saltsburg, was in the Air Force when he was notified.
“It's a good thing to honor them together,” he said.
Marine Pfc. George A. Link died during the January 1968 Tet offensive when the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars attacked. He died in the same province where Weleski and Hagara died and was one of five New Kensington servicemen who died in Vietnam.
His younger brother, Frank Link Jr., also New Kensington, enlisted soon after high school. About a year after his brother's death, Frank Link was a Marine in Vietnam.
Link, who went on to become New Kensington police chief and later mayor, said the memorial will be welcomed by all Vietnam veterans.
“You have to remember, this was a very, very unpopular war. It's wonderful for the guys who were from the Valley, and it's a way people to say ‘thank you' for what you did.”
Ron Breightmyer of Templeton was 5 when his uncle, Army Pfc. William Breightmyer of Ford City, died from enemy fire in Thua Thien Province, South Vietnam, on May 5, 1968.
“This was very tough on my father to lose his brother. I have very few, but nice, memories of my uncle,”said Ron Breightmyer, who served aboard two ships in the Navy from 1981-87.
Brieghtmyer's name already appears on the Armstrong County Vietnam Memorial, which includes names from that county.
Having all of the Alle-Kiski Valley men's names together is a “nice thing to do,” Ron Breightmyer said.
East Deer's Anthony Taliani fondly remembers his first cousin, Pfc. John B. Taliana, who was 20 when he died Oct. 29, 1966, from hostile fire off the infamous Highway 13 in South Vietnam.
“My uncle came home from World War II with an ‘A' on the end of the name, but John and I grew up together. He was from Natrona Heights.
“This is great,” Taliani said, “It's never too late to honor these men.”
Army Pfc. James Joseph Koprivnikar is buried in Deer Creek Cemetery, Russellton, West Deer, and his brother, Alan Koprivnikar of Cheswick, likes the idea of the memorial.
Koprivnikar was 13 and his older brother 21 when the soldier died in battle on Dec. 15, 1967 in Binh Dinh Province in South Vietnam.
“They have honored World War II and Korean veterans and the newer ones,” Koprivnikar said. “It's time.”
He remains disappointed by a 2008 newspaper story in which a man who dodged the draft in Canada later returned to the United States and wanted to vote.
“If my brother did that, then he might be alive,” Alan Koprivnikar asked. “But who would have protected our right to vote and other rights?”
Chuck Biedka is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4711 or firstname.lastname@example.org.