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Barry Culhane: 'I wanted to do something for them'

Barry Culhane, a U.S. Army veteran, was instrumental in getting the Vietnam War memorial constructed in Highland Park. He said it was a labor of love.
Emily Hunt/WXXI
Barry Culhane, a U.S. Army veteran, was instrumental in getting the Vietnam War memorial constructed in Highland Park. He said it was a labor of love.

After completing U.S. Army basic and medical training in 1969, Barry Culhane had orders to be sent to Vietnam.

He was ready.

“I'd already written my parents a note and said I’ve upped my life insurance, and I'll be back when I get back,” Culhane said.

He had seen some of the grim consequences of the war at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he had trained as a combat medic and an eye, ear, nose and throat corpsman.

“I worked with napalm victims and they were in pain always and didn't even look like human beings,” Culhane said. “I've said this all my life: I know the difference between a good day and a bad day, and I've never had a bad day. And that is the truth.”

After Fort Sam Houston, Culhane was stationed in Fort Dix in New Jersey. He had been there only a short time when he got his orders for Vietnam.

But days before he was to ship out, those orders changed: He was going to stay at Fort Dix to serve as a medical clinician and treat veterans and civilians.

Later, he again received orders to go to Vietnam, this time to serve as an eye, ear, nose and throat corpsman.

Remarkably, his orders were again canceled.

Culhane had mixed feelings about the two cancellations.

“There's part of me that for sure wanted to go,” he said. “Then there's part of me that said, ‘Hey, God is telling me something and I'm lucky.’ You'd have to be crazy to think that you weren't lucky.”

Culhane treated many veterans while he was serving in Texas and New Jersey during his two-year stint in the Army. And he knew of several men with whom he went through basic training and combat medic school who didn’t come back.

“So I wanted to do something for them,” Culhane said.

Years later, back in his hometown of Rochester, Culhane said he was talking with a group of people about the fact that there was no Vietnam War memorial in the area. In the late 1980s, Culhane became the chairman of a group spearheading the efforts to create such a memorial in Highland Park.

“We wanted it to be central,” Culhane said, explaining that they sought to include Monroe, Genesee, Orleans, Ontario, Wayne and Livingston counties.

It was definitely a labor of love, he said.

“We had no paid staff, not even secretarial support, because we were doing it at nights and on weekends,” Culhane said.

He said another volunteer, Andy Portanova, came up with the memorial’s theme: to commemorate, to educate and to heal.

“Those were the three processes that we wanted to have happen as the result of the memorial,” Culhane said.

The commemoration component, he said, was primarily represented in the 280 stainless steel posts with the names of the fallen soldiers. Education came through the written work: the memorial’s timeline and learning area, the information engraved with the map of Vietnam and other details.

“And when I wrote the timeline,” Culhane said, “I didn't want it to be just about the battles of Vietnam because I wanted to capture the ’60s and what it was like because it was a very contentious time in our history. Neighbor against neighbor, brother against sister.”

The healing part, he said, is a personal experience. “It happens when an individual or a couple of individuals come down and just find some peace and quiet at the memorial.”

Culhane hopes the entire community finds value in the memorial.

“It's not just a Vietnam soldiers’ memorial,” he said. “It's a Vietnam memorial because Vietnam affected veterans and nonveterans alike.”