AUSTIN -- Hundreds gathered in the chilly morning air for a solemn salute.
Armed Monday with shovels, a select company of Vietnam veterans broke ground on the Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument. Among them was Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson (R-Texas), himself a Vietnam Veteran, who led a ceremony marked by both laughter and tears.
"Obviously it's important, but it turned out to be a lot more emotional than I thought it would be," said Patterson, who served in the United States Marine Corps during the Vietnam War.
The monument will enshrine the personalized dog tags of the 3,417 Texans killed in Vietnam, which were transported after Monday's ceremony from the Capitol grounds to where the monument is being built in Bastrop.
Designed by New Mexico sculptor Duke Sundt, the 14-foot tall, $1.5 million bronze monument will feature five infantry figures posed atop an eight-sided base depicting scenes in bas relief.
"They represent the diversity," said Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Committee Chairman Robert Floyd. "It will be the first monument to represent the diversity, a Hispanic-American, African-American, Asian, Native-American and Caucasian."
Those in attendance, many of whom drove from out of state to be present, sounded a common refrain. Pointing out memorials to veterans of other wars on the Texas Capitol grounds and elsewhere, one veteran summed up the sentiment, "It's way overdue."
"A wonderful monument, it really is," said retired Col. James Lamar, USAF. Imprisoned and tortured at the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" after his aircraft was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, Lamar considers himself lucky.
"I'm the fortunate one," said Lamar. "I spent a little time in an uncomfortable situation, but all the time I was there, I knew those men on the ground in South Vietnam were in worse conditions."
For some, finding closure when it comes to the Vietnam War is an ongoing battle. Capt. Ronald Forrester, a Marine Corps pilot, was on a bombing run over North Vietnam when his aircraft was shot down in December of 1972. He remains one of 1,652 Americans still listed as missing in action in Southeast Asia.
"We don't have any closure. We don't know what happened to our loved one," said daughter Karoni Forrester, Texas state coordinator and a member of the board of directors for the National League of POW-MIA Families. "We need to just remember that while it was a long time ago,the Vietnam War is not over for a lot of people."
Vietnam veteran and state Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen) says the monument also contains a lesson. As a Marine returning from the war, Hinojosa remembers the chilly reception upon his arrival stateside.
"We never felt quite welcome back home," said Hinojosa. "We didn't talk about it. We avoided wearing our uniforms in public, and up till now we felt somewhat neglected."
"We should always welcome back our soldiers with open arms and do everything possible to help them make the transition back to civilian life," Hinojosa explained. "It's extremely important because they have made a great sacrifice so that we can stay home, enjoy our families, our churches, our communities and our friends and neighbors."
"When we came home there were no parades," said Patterson. "Our nation learned something from that. Even though the current encounters and the current hostilities in the Middle East maybe are waning in popularity, nobody blames the soldier. And that's really good news."
With the ground freshly broken, the actual monument will likely be unveiled sometime in February 2014.