By Shad Meshad
On May 27th, a person yet to be identified spray painted graffiti across a 100-feet wide swath of a wall in the city of Venice, CA. Graffiti like this is not an uncommon occurrence in Los Angeles, or any U.S. city. This time, however, the vandalism caught the attention and outrage of much of the Venice and greater Los Angeles community, as well as veteran supporters across the country. This was because the vandalism happened on Memorial Day weekend, and the wall the tagger had chosen was a 25-year-old mural dedicated to American servicemen who served in Vietnam, specifically prisoners of war and those missing in action, including 2,273 names that had been painstakingly hand-painted by my dear friend, Peter Stewart, working alongside other veteran volunteers. The wall has stood for over two decades as a reminder of those soldiers who should not be forgotten.
The tagger had chosen our wall to deface.
I say it’s our wall for two reasons. One, because I’m a Vietnam veteran, a veteran counselor and a veteran advocate. I have worked for 44 years to help former service members transition from military to civilian life. Two, because Peter Stewart designed his mural to include the National Veterans Foundation’s toll-free number for veterans needing help. The NVF was a part of his project from its inception.
In 1991, Peter Stewart, himself a veteran, volunteered his services to the NVF and organized the Vietnam veterans’ mural project in gratitude for my counseling. Peter was homeless, living in his van with his pet parrot. He was a Vietnam Vet, and I’d worked with him for many months, treating his post-traumatic stress. He was a talented artist and he wanted to do something for his brothers. Peter incorporated the NVF’s toll-free number into his design so that veterans needing counseling or information knew where they could find it.
Stewart’s memorial was executed by him and other volunteers, many of them homeless vets. Its unveiling was a media event complete with a flyover of vintage aircraft from Santa Monica’s air field. NVF’s archives include a video of the event. The NVF has been replacing the flags at the wall since its dedication in June of 1992. The Wall has since become a landmark in Venice.
Since the mural’s dedication, the number of Vietnam POWs and MIAs had decreased significantly to 1,028. Many whose names are on that wall have been recovered and identified. What’s important is what the mural represents. It symbolizes the men and women who served in Vietnam who were vilified instead of honored by their fellow citizens when they returned home, who never received the heroes’ homecoming that troops from more recent wars have received. It represents those who were killed in that war, those who were wounded, and those who carry the invisible wounds of war to this day, who still suffer from PTSD and who are dying from Agent Orange- related illnesses, as well as those who went on to live successful lives relatively untouched by their war experiences.
The Venice POW/MIA Mural hasn’t gotten a lot of love since ’91. This isn’t the first time it’s been victim to taggers. It’s faded and has needed restoring for years. If one good thing comes of this vandalism, it’s that it might just get the attention and renewal it deserves.
While I believe in my heart that the mural belongs to our veterans, the property and the wall belong to LA Metro. I am encouraged by a meeting I had with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) just last week, where I was assured of their commitment to the mural’s restoration and their pledge to maintain the National Veterans Foundation’s history, name and, most importantly, the Lifeline for Vets number on the wall.
That number, that any vet of any era can call for help, is one of the most tangible legacies of the Venice POW/MIA Mural, because despite the wear and tear, and the graffiti that makes the toll free number less visible, veterans still call the Lifeline for help after seeing it on the wall, and they have for years.
If you are a veteran in need of assistance, or know a veteran who needs help, that number is 888-777-4443. And if you wish to support the restoration of the Venice POW/MIA Mural, please make a donation now.
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The worst part of war should not be coming home.