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Beaumont native at work on memorial to Vietnam vets

April 15, 2019

When the Veterans Memorial was unveiled at the Ben J. Rogers Visitors Center nearly 10 years ago, its sculptor, Ron Petitt, was already imagining a new monument — one to honor friends, loved ones and all those he served with in the Vietnam War.

Kerwin Stone, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 292 in Beaumont, of which Petitt was a founding member, said the serious conversion surrounding a Vietnam War-specific monument began in March.

Last Monday, Jefferson County Commissioners Court approved the proposed statue. It is expected to be unveiled on March 29, 2020 — National Vietnam Veterans Day.

“As much as we enjoy and appreciate the all-veterans memorial at the visitors center, we still felt a need to honor the veterans from Vietnam in particular,” said Stone, 71, who served as an Air Force surveillance officer during the war.

A few of Petitt’s pieces are already on display in his hometown. He is the artist behind the memorial statues at the police station, fire museum and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Beaumont.

Petitt, 68, served from 1971 to 1972 in Army intelligence. He graduated from Lamar University and was a Beaumont police officer before he moved to Colorado.

In 2016 he created a World War II memorial that stands in Pleasanton, California, cemetery where more than 500 veterans are buried.

He sees that piece as a predecessor to the one he is now sculpting for the city of Beaumont. He has begun working, starting from scratch to create a similar image: A soldier kneeling with his weapon, the helmet of a fallen soldier on the gun, gazing into the distance.

“It’s the same idea,” Petitt said. “It’s a soldier honoring his fallen friends and comrades, but this will be the next generation. War is the same, and they experienced the same things — loss of friends, the horror of combat — it’s a son following his father’s footsteps, one after the other.”

Petitt said he hopes to capture what is known colloquially as the “1,000-yard stare” in this new sculpture. The “stare,” Petitt said, refers to the emotionless, unfocused gaze of a soldier who has witnessed the death and destruction of war.

“We’re getting older,” Stone said. “The average age of Vietnam veterans is 72, and the VVA loses members regularly.”

Members of Chapter 292 felt a statue to accompany the one standing at the visitors center would be fitting way to honor those those who served their country.

“This is probably going to be our last big project,” Stone said. “We used to do parades and barbecues. We were very active in the community, but our members are aging. This is a way, we thought, to honor them and keep their memory alive.”

Even though Petitt is absorbing much of the cost of the statue, the VVA still needs to raise $60,000 for materials, casting costs and a budget for long-term maintenance of the statue.

Fundraising is in its infancy with only a few donations made since the project was approved last week. There is quite a ways to go, but Stone said events will be planned and efforts made to reach their goal.

“It’s very humbling, very much an honor, to have this type of memorial in our town,” Stone said.

Everything about the project feels personal to Stone, and not just because it’s being made by a friend. It will stand for generations as a reminder of the sacrifices he, Petitt and every other Vietnam veteran made all those years ago.

“We were there,” Stone said. “We did something important and we are proud of our service.”

haley.bruyn@beaumontenterprise.com

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