Vietnam War veteran and Durham native Jerond L. Belton Sr. discusses the Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial he designed and dedicated more than 30 years ago.
By Sam Edge
On Aug. 8, 1992, Jerond L. Belton Sr. dedicated the Vietnam Veterans Living Memorial that stands near the Edison Johnson Recreation Center. The book-shaped granite monument bears inscriptions that honor both the survivors and the dead of the war. Jerond is one such survivor. Before he enlisted in the Army in 1965, he was a drummer in the James Brown Band. He served as an Army Ranger in Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, working reconnaissance and specializing in communications. Jerond remained in the Army until 1971. When he came home from the war, he returned to his drum kit and, not long afterward, he began thinking about and working on a way to commemorate those who served in Vietnam alongside him – a project that would eventually become the memorial that exists today. “Two years prior to putting it up, that’s when we started the process of trying to put it together,” Jerond says. “I wanted to make sure none of these guys were forgotten,” he says.
When it came time to choose a location for the monument, Jerond wanted somewhere tranquil – somewhere visitors could reflect on this history unbothered. “After the process, they gave us three pieces of property to choose from,” he says. “Two of them was out by the Eno, and, knowing the location of this, [near] the Museum of Life of Science, we took this,” Jerond says, signaling that he felt it was more accessible and discoverable than the other properties.
In January 2001, the monument was vandalized with a bulldozer; the only salvageable remains were from the granite base. Once again, Jerond stepped up to rebuild the monument and ensure those who left their Durham homes to fight in Vietnam were not lost to history. “I ordered 5,000 pounds of black granite out of Italy to redo this memorial,” he says. “I said, ‘I want the best.’” It was rededicated on Veterans Day in 2001, exactly one month after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, with an added tribute to the victims.
Jerond, who maintains the site to this day, says he could not have built the memorial without help. As a lifetime member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, a congressionally chartered veteran organization, connections were never hard to make. “There will always be a bond between who we are and where we were,” Jerond says of other Durham Vietnam vets. “We didn’t have the money … we worked at the ballpark or the refreshment stand to make money … I had a lot of good people working with me when I put this together..”
The engravings on the memorial list some of the more devastating statistics of the war effort, which lasted nearly two decades. More than 58,000 American soldiers perished, and thousands still remain unaccounted for. Most soldiers in the war weren’t even out of their teens. “It really happened,” Jerond says. “It’s history.” He hopes that schools continue to educate children about the sacrifices made in Vietnam so that the more than 2.7 million Americans who served are not forgotten. “Our most precious and priceless gift is our children,” Jerond says. “And we were children when we went to Vietnam. I was only 19 years old, and I look back over that time and I say to myself, ‘How did I do it?’”