Memorial to Soldiers who Died in Vietnam Scheduled to Return to View

The “Above and Beyond Memorial” is scheduled to be re-installed this winter at the Harold Washington Library Center and will be opened to the public Feb. 20. In addition to checking names, museum staff are adding the names of veterans whose deaths in the war have been confirmed by the Department of Defense.

By Annie Sweeney, Chicago Tribune

The work was painstaking, requiring keen eyesight and patience.

Brendan Foster, executive director of Chicago’s National Veterans Art Museum, sat at a table with a black binder and laptop. The museum’s gallery coordinator, Destinee Oitzinger, wearing white gloves, stood in front of nearly 1,500 replica dog tags dangling from the ceiling and delicately teased them out one by one, reading the name stamped into each.

Ali. Chislock. Dillard. Fitzpatrick. Ford.

With each name, Foster scanned pages inside the binder and looked at his laptop, which was open to the Wall of the Faces page of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial website.

Foster confirmed each name and date of death on both the Chicago museum’s internal list and the national gallery’s compilation of soldiers who lost their lives in the Vietnam War.

The detailed fact-checking of the 58,000 Vietnam veteran dog tags that make up the massive “Above and Beyond Memorial,” was part of preparations underway to return the celebrated piece to public view.

The display has been boxed up for about three years after the museum moved to Portage Park and no long had the space required for its 400-square-foot footprint.

After 74 years, bones from Pearl Harbor tomb ship may be identified
After 74 years, bones from Pearl Harbor tomb ship may be identified
The “Above and Beyond Memorial” is scheduled to be re-installed this winter at the Harold Washington Library Center and will be opened to the public Feb. 20. In addition to checking names, museum staff are adding the names of veterans whose deaths in the war have been confirmed by the Department of Defense.

“The piece is magnificent,” Foster said. “And each individual tag is important to the piece. We want to be sure we show the respect to everyone who sacrificed in Vietnam. If there is anything to fix or improve, we can.”

As Foster and Oitzinger talked about the exhibit, veteran and artist Joe Fornelli, who had been listening in the back of the workroom, started to softly weep. He exited to an adjoining office, where he sat alone for a few minutes.

Fornelli, who commanded a U.S. Army Huey helicopter crew and one of four veteran-artists to create “Above and Beyond,” paused for a minute before speaking.

“People died in combat, and we were next to these people. So it’s closer than family. I carry a long history of mourning these guys,” he said. “Why did (they) die? For love of country. Period. No politics. It’s American history. It’s all of us.

“It was exciting for us to come up with this memorial. We had the voice. They didn’t have the voice.”

When Foster joined the museum last winter, he knew of the exhibit’s popularity. Still, he was not prepared for the daily queries from people who wanted to see it.

“I didn’t really grasp the significance, the magnitude and importance of the piece until I arrived and started talking to visitors and answering the phones,” Foster said. “We field calls everyday from all over the country.”

The veterans who created the piece, including Fornelli, had been lobbying to find a spot to hang it as well. It was, after all, among the most poignant pieces of art to emerge from the collection of veteran art that began in 1981 when Fornelli and other artists launched what would become the Vietnam Veterans Art Group.

The first exhibit of art was at a small storefront museum. To the surprise of vets, who had not all been welcomed home warmly, the lines snaked around the block at the shows. Traveling exhibits followed, and in 1996 they had a permanent home at 1801 S. Indiana Ave.

The museum board at the time, as well as some of the artists, wanted to create a Vietnam War memorial to add to the collection. The group decided to make a dog tag for each of the 58,000 veterans who lost their lives in the war, including names and date of death. They were determined not to limit the display to Chicagoans.

“Above and Beyond Memorial” debuted in 2001.

Some years later, the museum expanded its scope to include combat-inspired art from all wars, and it now includes a collection of work by more than 255 veteran artists and houses more than 2,500 art pieces.

When the art museum moved to Portage Park in 2012, the installation stayed behind in the South Loop building until May 2013. Renovations at the building demanded it come down, and it has been boxed every since.

The search for a spot for “Above and Beyond” was complicated by the size and weight of the piece, not to mention it is viewed best in natural light so the sun can play off the tags. Viewing it from all sides also enhances the experience.

Read the rest of the Chicago Tribune article by Annie Sweeney here