July 11, 2002
More than 30 years of effort culminated in the dedication of the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Alexandria on July 6, and the awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Army Capt. Humbert Roque "Rocky" Versace in a White House ceremony on July 8.
"Those who knew him began lobbying for him to receive the Medal of Honor almost 30 years ago and only began asking us to recognize his extraordinary efforts three years ago," said City Councilman David G. Speck. "Even though Rocky lived in Alexandria as a youngster, most of us didn't know who he was or what he had done until a small group of people brought his story to our attention and asked us to recognize him in some way. Lots of people come forward and want streets or buildings or other things to be named after people, but when I began to look into the story of Rocky Versace and his amazing heroism, I was truly affected. The credit for the beautiful memorial that is at Mount Vernon Recreation Center and for the Medal of Honor goes to that group of extraordinary friends of Rocky Versace. I'm just glad that I could play a small part in helping them to accomplish their goal."
Speck began supporting the construction of the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Memorial more than two years ago after the city's new elementary school was not named in Capt. Versace's honor. "After the School Board made their decision, we looked for a fitting tribute to Rocky Versace as well as a tribute to those other veterans who lost their lives in Vietnam," Speck said. "I am truly thrilled with the result."
THE CENTERPIECE of the Plaza is a statue of Versace with two Vietnamese children. It was created by Maryland sculptor Antonio Tobias Mendez. It is similar to a picture of Versace that was taken while he served in Vietnam. Near the statue is a stone bench with the names of 66 Alexandrians who gave their lives in Vietnam. Each name is highlighted with a gold star.
"This is a fitting tribute to a true American hero," said Mayor Kerry J. Donley. "It seems particularly appropriate now, after Sept. 11, that we are honoring those who fought to preserve the freedom that we value so much. It is fitting that this memorial stands just blocks from the home in which Rocky Versace lived here in Alexandria."
Lt. Gov. Timothy Kaine joined Donley and members of City Council at the ceremony last Saturday. Versace family members and members of the Friends of Rocky Versace stood as “God Bless America” was sung. That is the last thing that fellow prisoners of war heard Rocky Versace sing, just before he was executed in September 1965.
Versace was a West Point graduate who specialized in intelligence. After serving one year in Vietnam in the early 1960s, he volunteered for another one-year tour there. On Oct. 29, 1963, just three weeks before Rocky was scheduled to return home, the North Vietnamese captured him along with two other soldiers.
For two years, Rocky lived in a bamboo cage that was 6 feet long, 2 feet wide and 3 feet high. Rocky refused to give his captors any information except his name, rank and serial number.
"He was fluent in English, French and Vietnamese and would tell his guards to 'go to hell' in all three," said President George W. Bush at the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House. "Eventually the Viet Cong stopped using French and Vietnamese in their indoctrination sessions, because they didn't want the sentries or the villagers to listen to Rocky's effective rebuttals to their propaganda. Rocky knew precisely what he was doing. By focusing his captors' anger on him, he made life a measure more tolerable for his fellow prisoners, who looked to him as a role model of principled resistance."
FINALLY, UNABLE to break his spirit, the Viet Cong executed Rocky Versace on Sept. 26, 1965.
"In his too short life, he traveled to a distant land to bring the hope of freedom to the people he never met," President Bush said. "In his defiance and later his death, he set an example of extraordinary dedication that changed the lives of his fellow soldiers who saw it firsthand. His story echoes across the years, reminding us of liberty's high price and the noble passion that caused one good man to pay that price in full."
Rocky Versace is the first prisoner of war to be awarded the Medal of Honor for actions taken during captivity in Vietnam. Both U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-8th) and Sen. George Allen (R) attended the ceremony at the White House.
"This award is long overdue," Moran said. "Rocky was a true hero who served his fellow Army comrades, his country, and his community in his hometown of Alexandria. This Medal of Honor for Rocky came about because of the hard work and determination of his friends and family — not one of them forgetting about his heroic efforts."
Rocky Versace would have been 65 on July 2.