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Old Barn Self Storage Manager Lloyd Young, left, and Nevada County artist Steve Liserra, right, teamed up to create this image inspired by sculptor Richard Rist’s “Fallen Soldier.” The “Happy” sign that adorns the hillside year-round is draped in black bunting for today’s observance of Vietnam Veterans Day and for Memorial Day coming in May. Their tribute may be seen on Old Barn’s hillside fronting Highway 20/49 in Grass Valley, just north of the Dorsey Drive interchange. Photo by Trina Kleist

March 29, 2017 – Today marks the national observance of Vietnam Veterans Day, and a local business is saying “thank you” in a big way.

A giant image of “Fallen Soldier” rises from a Grass Valley hillside off Highway 20/49, just past the Dorsey Drive interchange. Giant metal dog tags swing in the wind and bang against the 12-foot-high mural of a helmet atop an inverted rifle and empty boots.

Old Barn Self Storage Manager Lloyd Young commissioned the painting to honor all who served during the Vietnam War.

“We hope with this project to encourage people to continue to show respect to our military and their families,” Young said. “Especially the families – they have it hard.”

Old Barn already commemorates World War II veterans with an enormous reproduction of the iconic photo from the battle of Iwo Jima. Young wanted to expand the hillside tribute to honor vets of his own generation. With the blessing of Old Barn managing partner Stephen R. DeSena of Nevada City, and the help of artist buddy Steve Liserra of Nevada County, the mural went up on the hillside earlier this month.

The art is a personal tribute for both Young and Liserra. Young entered the U.S. Army Infantry in 1971 and continued in the Army Reserves. Liserra served in the National Guard starting in 1969.

“I owned those boots,” Liserra said. “I had that rifle.”

Liserra remembers the first friend from high school who died in Vietnam: John Burke, “a really good guy,” Liserra said. Burke’s death sparked an uneasy conflict of emotions that affected many of that era: “He went. It was something you had to do,” Liserra recalled. “But there were all these protesters. They just didn’t want to go.”

Both men view the war as an unfortunate but necessary struggle to keep America safe. Now, 44 years after the end of the unpopular conflict, their memorial offers some healing for the mistreatment and rejection many veterans experienced when they returned home.

The composition of helmet, rifle and boots – now called the battlefield cross or soldier’s cross – may have originated during the Civil War to mark the location of a fallen soldier, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

It evolved into a way of mourning the dead at base camp during the Korean War and gained popularity during the recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smithsonian reported. The image was popularized in 2004 by Baltimore sculptor Richard Rist, who makes bronze castings on commission. Rists’s “Fallen Soldier” inspired Liserra, he said.

A ceremony erecting a battlefield cross in memory of a dead comrade is now included in the U.S. Army Field Manual revised in 2013.

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In 1974, then-President Richard M. Nixon called for the first day honoring Vietnam Veterans on March 29 – a year after the last American troops withdrew from Vietnam under the Paris Peace Accords. In 2011, a Senate resolution declared March 30 as Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Day. In 2012, then-President Barack Obama designated March 29 as Vietnam Veterans Day.

The Vietnam War was preceded by nearly two decades of indirect American involvement as U.S. officials sought to limit the influence of newly communist China and, later, communist leadership in northern Vietnam. The U.S. stepped in after France ended its long-time colonial presence in what then was called Indochina. In 1962, Operation Chopper marked America’s first combat mission against Viet Cong forces in the Communist north. The conflict eventually expanded to include neighboring Laos and Cambodia before the Paris Peace Accords ended American involvement in 1973. Left without American help, southern forces fell to the Viet Cong in 1975.

More than 3 million Americans served in Southeast Asia during the eight years of direct U.S. military involvement, and more than 58,000 service members died. As many as 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians also perished.

Trina Kleist is a Grass Valley-based freelance writer whose clients include Old Barn Self Storage. She may be contacted at tkleistwrites@gmail.com or (530) 575-6132.