Statue's Donors Asked to Give Again

Times Staff Writer

The statue of the two soldiers is still draped in canvas, constantly watched by a video camera and drawing stares from the occasional visitor who might wander through the unfinished park.

The plan is to unwrap the memorial, which depicts U.S. and South Vietnamese soldiers fighting side by side, on April 27, days before the 28th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. A South Vietnamese flag will be raised, marking one of the few public places in the nation where the fallen country's banner will fly.

But there are growing concerns that the five-year drive for the statue across the street from the Westminster Civic Center is about to stall again.

Donors -- mostly Vietnamese Americans -- who raised more than $1 million for the statue are being asked to contribute more to pay the city for the upkeep of the monument, which sits in a public park.

The call for more money is the latest hurdle for a project that has been delayed by political squabbles, design disputes and a lingering feeling that it has become a symbol of the divide between civic leaders and the city's Vietnamese community.

Some in the Vietnamese community say the latest request for cash left them wondering whether their donations have been wisely spent and questioning the accounting practices of the six-member committee that oversees the project.

For the moment, the city, the committee and the donors said they want to put the disputes and unrest aside until after next month's dedication.

"The statue is very meaningful to the community, so people want to leave the problems behind until after the unveiling,"' said Frank Fry Jr., a Westminster councilman and committee member who proposed the project about a decade ago. "Everyone has worked so hard to get this far, so they want to see it unveiled."

The 15-foot, 3-ton bronze statue of the soldiers is the centerpiece of the city's new 1.4-acre Sid Goldstein Freedom Park on All American Way.

The memorial depicts the friendship between the two countries and will be flanked by a marble fountain, flags of the United States and South Vietnam, lights, a burning torch and a memorial urn. A kiosk will house a computer that lists the names of 58,000 American and more than 300,000 South Vietnamese soldiers who died in the war.

But the push for the statue in a town where Asians make up 40% of the population has been rocky.

In 1998, Westminster officials refused to approve the project or give it a home until citizens raised at least $500,000. Once the money had been collected, city leaders continued disputing whether the statue should be on public property, whether the American soldier should stand taller than his counterpart, and even if the South Vietnamese soldier should be eliminated entirely.

There also was resistance to displaying the South Vietnamese flag.

Just as frustrated organizers were ready to move the project to Garden Grove, where officials had offered to display it prominently, Westminster agreed to place the statue in a park named after a World War II veteran. "It's a public park and the city could have done more," said Fry, a World War II veteran who has been on the council 33 years.

"But [the council] was influenced by a bunch of rednecks that swayed them in many instances. I was totally frustrated."

Fry said his council colleagues and other civic leaders always had a problem with the notion that the statue would show the Vietnamese and American soldiers together.

Mayor Margie L. Rice said the city never formally opposed the project, but did draw the line on underwriting the statue.

"They went absolute bonkers with this project," Rice said. "It's beautiful and they made it a work of art, but we only had enough money to develop a park like any other city park."

By November, with members of the Vietnamese American community fighting over how their donations were being spent, it became clear the project needed a financial infusion.

Following another plea for money, Vietnamese American singers held a concert. It netted $260,000, enough to pay for the remaining phase.

Now, it appears more money is needed. The oversight committee says it needs about $100,000 to cover an agreement with the city that it would maintain the statue for three years.

Further, committee members say, they need the money to pay for the April dedication ceremonies and to buy $4,000 figurines--small replicas of the statue itself -- for top donors and civic dignitaries.

The committee also wants to build a $660,000 reserve fund by selling naming rights in the area around the statue. Engraved plaques named for top donors will be displayed around the grounds -- underneath the urn and flagpoles, on the side of a utility building and atop handicap ramps.

Committee membersmay also use some of the reserve money to endow a scholarship fund, said Craig Mandeville, committee treasurer.

Some donors said they've had enough.

"I keep donating money and I want to know where it's all going, because they keep asking for more," said Thu Nguyen, 60, of Santa Ana, who said she gave $400 to the cause over the years. "They treat us like they are milking a cow."

A group of community members formed a watchdog group Friday to audit past expenses and determine why the committee needs more money. Organizers said they can account for all of it, and suggest that the suspicion and ill feelings are a result of a communication problem.

"We keep telling people we don't know how much it costs because we don't know what the bids come in as," Mandeville said. "And some organizers forget to tell the public that there are various phases of the project. But people don't want to hear that. They question too much. They don't bring anything to help us. They only criticize us."

He said organizers are preparing the dedication.

"Right now, we're only going to focus on the positives so people can get excited and look forward to it," Mandeville said.

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