During the 1960s and 70s, the Vietnam War rocked American communities from coast to coast, leaving death and division in its wake. McLennan County was no exception. The Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands on the banks of the Brazos River as a silent but powerful testimony of the war’s impact on both the Waco community and the nation at large.
While Waco’s memorial did not become a reality until several decades after the war’s end, its origin rests in the wartime experience of local veteran Manuel Sustaita. Sustaita joined the U.S. Marine Corp in 1963 at seventeen years of age. As part of the Delta Company, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 3rd Marine Division, Sustaita was among the first marines to see combat in the conflict. This experience in Vietnam, including the death of his closest friend, Lance Corporal Joseph Ray Wynn Jr., left a deep impression on the young Marine. The idea of a Waco veterans memorial first emerged on Sustaita’s 1985 visit to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC, during which he was overcome by the visual magnitude of the war’s destruction. Writing several years later about his visit to the national memorial, Sustaita recalled, “I thought it would only take a few minutes to look up my [friends’] names…[but] I was wrong. Just to recover from the emotion and…the task of trying to find the name on that massive piece of stone was unreal.”
Sustaita wanted Wacoans to be able to share in a similar memorial experience, even if they were unable to travel to the nation’s capital. In 1989, Sustaita founded the Waco Citizens for a Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Inc., where fellow Wacoans Guy Cox and John Householder joined him as board members. This advisory board—comprised of veterans, Gold Star mothers, and local professionals—began the “Adopt in Memory Of” effort, in which individuals and religious, educational, business, and civic organizations could commit to raise $1,000 for the memorial in memory of a deceased casualty. A design for the memorial was settled on in 1989. The structure would consist of three pavilions total, symbolizing the experience of the country before, during, and after the war.
All of these preparations culminated in the site’s groundbreaking on Memorial Day 1990. Due to setbacks the memorial was not officially dedicated until 2004. The first pavilion of the memorial reads “Before the Vietnam War, We Were Whole.” The second reads, “The Vietnam War Brought Destruction and Turmoil.” On the third and final pavilion is inscribed, “The Sacrifices of Those We Honor Make This Hallowed Ground—Let us Strive to Reunite and Heal.” Under the third pavilion stands a monument into which the names of the fallen are etched. One linear wall also contains five bronze seals of the five branches of military service. The memorial includes a quote from Patrick Henry, which reads, “The battle is not to the strong alone; it is to the vigilant, the active, the brave.”
A ten-year anniversary event was held in 2014, at which time nine names were added to the monument. Including the seven names added in February of 2018, the total now stands at eighty-three. Situated along the city’s revitalized river trail, the Waco Vietnam Veterans Memorial stands not only as a reminder of a sobering chapter in local and national history, but of the participants in that history whose voices are now silent.