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City Honors Its Veterans

"Rocky" Remembered This Veterans Day

The rain and thunder had stopped. The skies had cleared, at least partially. The small crowd had gathered around the three bronze statues in the center of three concentric circles.

It was Veterans day, November 11, 2002, in Alexandria. Twenty years after The Wall, just across the Potomac, had been dedicated on much the same kind of day. Two black slabs of polished stone bearing the names of 58,000-plus. A giant tombstone subject to 200 million-plus interpretations.

It was as if the heavens were saying 'we remember the heat, the cold, the mud, the rice paddies.' The conflict that drew in a nation but has never truly released it.

Captain Humbert Roque Versace was part of that conflict and yet he was not. A 1959 graduate of West Point Military Academy his personal mission was to aid those that could not aid themselves — the children. And for that he paid the ultimate price.

Versace, a U.S. Army intelligence specialist, had served his year in Vietnam in the early 1960's, at the very beginning of the conflict. Then, he volunteered for a second tour. Just three weeks prior to completing that tour, he was captured by the Viet Cong on October 29, 1963.

FOR TWO YEARS he endured intense interrogation and punishment surviving in a six by two by three foot bamboo cell known as a "tiger cage." He gave his captors only what is required under the international code for POW's - name, rank, and serial number.

Frustrated by their inability to break him and by his dedication to focusing their wrath on him, thereby easing treatment to other prisoners, the Viet Cong made their final move. They executed Rocky Versace on September 26, 1965. He was just 28 years old.

In front of the Mount Vernon Recreation Center on Commonwealth Avenue stands a bronze statute of Captain "Rocky" Versace and, with him, two, much smaller, bronze figures, a Vietnamese boy and girl. They are surrounded by a high-back concrete bench that bears the names of the 67 Alexandrians who died or are missing in that conflict that ended over a quarter of a century ago. Above each name is a gold star.

On Monday Rocky's brother Steve, and others gathered around the trio to hold the first Veterans Day ceremony since the Rocky Versace Plaza and Vietnam Veterans Memorial was dedicated on July 6. A rose wreath was placed in front of the statues. John Gurr, a 1959 fellow West Point classmate, solemnly read the 67 names in the order of their deaths during that unanswered 15 year struggle.

"This has become a special place in Alexandria," said City Councilman David G. Speck. "None of us who got involved in this project ever dreamed just how special it would become. It is a place where people come to reflect. Nothing that I have been involved with has given me greater pleasure."

SPECK SERVED as chairman of the committee that oversaw the competition for the "Rocky" Versace memorial creation. Another, who was very instrumental in bringing about the memorial, was the late Tony Heisley. A plaque in his honor was unveiled just outside the main entrance to the center on Monday.

Immediately inside the entrance Gurr and Mike Faber, who worked to gain recognition for Versace through his leadership in "The Friends of Rocky," and who served as master of ceremonies Monday, together unveiled the war hero's Medal of Honor which will be displayed at the center along with other memorabilia.

In making the presentation of the Congressional Medal of Honor on July 8 of this year in a White House ceremony, President George W. Bush, stated, "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 first hand.

"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 was the first Vietnam war POW to be awarded the nation's highest honor for actions undertaken during captivity.

MONDAY'S CEREMONY also encompassed the presence of two others who personified the true meaning of the day. One was there in person, the other in spirit.

Antonio T. "Toby" Mendez is the creator of the memorial plaza. As the head of Pleasant Valley Studios in Knoxville, MD, he was chosen by the committee to carry out the task of putting into tangible perspective the essence of "Rocky" Versace and the sacrifices made by the 67 others during this nation's "long day's journey into night."

He accomplished it by turning that journey back into dawn. "Rocky really lent himself to working with children. The two children with him are two Vietnamese children who actually came to this country through Catholic charities," Mendez explained.

"The other challenge to creating the memorial was to make it a tribute, not just to Rocky, but to all the Vietnam veterans of Alexandria. I chose to put the star over each name in much the same way as the Gold Star Mothers of World War II were recognized," he said.

"The surrounding high back bench gives a sense of community. It embraces the statues and those that visit," Mendez emphasized. It also has an acoustical mystery that enables very soft spoken voices to be heard at opposite ends of the bench much as in the Capitol rotunda.

Encasing the statues are three circles. The first states that the plaza is dedicated to the veterans of Vietnam. The second emphasizes the tribute to Rocky, "A kid from the neighborhood" and the children. The third, and most poignant circle, bears a poem by Rocky's mother, Tere Rios Versace.

A writer by profession, she authored a variety of works throughout her career. "Mother wrote the poem while he was missing. But, she was not sure if her prose should be in the present or past tense," Steve Versace, said. "She did not know whether he was dead or alive."

Thus the poem encircling her son's image and his two charges:

"Missing In Action

My son is * was

He often did * does

His eyes are * were brown"

HER WORDS WERE more than fitting on this Veteran's Day. Rocky was and is - much as the conflict in which he gave his life and to which his likeness stands in testament, just several blocks from his boyhood home.

"You will notice there are no weapons as a part of statues," Mendez pointed out. "It's a tribute to what he was about. Not war."