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City's Vietnam memorial opens up

A long-planned project to make the memorial more inviting is well underway, but in need of donations.

GERALD Miller watched a group of tourists crane their necks from a double-decker bus as it rumbled past the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial earlier this week.

A tour guide's hurried description of the memorial squawked from some speakers. The bus passengers whipped out their phones and captured the moment.

Miller, a 'Nam vet, smiled. The plan was working.

After nearly a decade of fits and starts, a remodeling effort to make the sometimes forgotten memorial more inviting to the public is now fully underway.

Workers recently removed a 7-foot-high wall that mostly blocked the view of the memorial, at Spruce Street and Columbus Boulevard, from passersby.

The heart of the site - a granite wall that bears the name of the 646 local soldiers who died in the war - is now fully visible from the street.

A "got concrete?" sign sits among heaps of overturned dirt, exposed rebar and construction equipment. The remodeling project calls for 130 yards of concrete to be poured along Spruce Street, and supporters have been asking for donations.

Terry Williamson, the president of the memorial fund board, said the board is about $126,000 shy of the remodeling project's $500,000 price tag.

Miller, a La Salle College High School teacher who also sits on the board, set up a website where folks can donate to the project:

"I started it about a week ago, with really no way of getting the word out, and we've already raised $645," he said.

Still, the board hopes that the majority of the overhaul, which includes repositioning eight 5-foot-wide granite panels that feature scenes from the war, will be completed by Memorial Day.

"Our object is to get people to see the memorial, to see the 646 names," Williamson said.

The redesign is also aimed at warding off vandals who previously took advantage of the memorial's enclosed design, Williamson said.

Miller, 65, sends his students to the memorial every year. He has them copy down the name of a fallen local soldier - and then repeat the task among the sea of 58,000 names that are engraved on the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

"I teach them to appreciate how lucky they are to be in a time where they have choices. We were drafted," said Miller, who served a year in Da Nang.

"The goal is also to learn from history, to not repeat stupid mistakes," he said.

"I want my students to look at the bigger picture of what it means to go to war. It's not some fun thing."