Vietnam vet hopes new sculpture can bring healing

When an Irma artist unveils his latest metal sculpture at the River Valley Bank branch in Tomahawk Monday afternoon, he hopes it is the start of a healing process for Wisconsin veterans of the war in Vietnam.

Since Charles Lee Hamilton Jr. first picked up a welding torch five years ago and began creating works of art that honor his fellow Vietnam vets, his work has always been more of a general nature. With his latest work “The Journey,” he is specifically honoring the 1,161 Wisconsin residents who died in the war.

The unveiling of the work, which features the time honored memorial of a rifle stuck into a combat boot topped with a fallen soldier’s hat or helmet, will be the first step in a journey of its own. Hamilton hopes to take the sculpture around the state.

While the Tomahawk exhibit is indoors, the work is designed to also be shown outside. The camouflage net that is draped over the “jungle hat” on the rifle acts as a wind chime when the wind blows on it.

Hamilton got the idea for the sculpture when the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall was in Green Bay in May 2010.

“There were certain things that were not said during that ceremony and it kind of brought me to life on a lot of things,” he said. “This one here is going to be my last Vietnam sculpture and I wanted to portray what I have on it. I’m hoping it will have a lot of healing for other people, to allow them to walk on from the past and into the future.”
Hanging from the hat are seven dog tags with the names of all the Wisconsin residents killed in the war on six of them and a seventh tag has the history of the Vietnam War, along with the names of 113 Wisconsin prisoners of war who died while incarcerated.
Hamilton said the tags were an inspiration that came to him relatively late in the building of the work. The idea came to him while visiting the traveling memorial and someone asked him if he knew which names were from Wisconsin.
“There is no way of really knowing, unless a person really knew. It dawned on me that I had to make this one Wisconsin specific,” Hamilton said. “This is what really made the sculpture happen. Without them, it just didn’t have Wisconsin on it.”
Hamilton said the unveiling Monday at the Tomahawk branch of River Valley Bank came about because the bank has made a concerted effort to reach out to veterans and veterans organizations.
“I went to pay my insurance there and the woman told me they were having a thing for veterans. I actually went down the street and something told me to turn around and go back and talk to him. I spoke with the branch manager and they were having a thing for veterans there, and I thought that was pretty cool. So I attended the little showing they had there with the VFW and American Legion. He asked me if I could bring some of my artwork down there for the little presentation,” Hamilton said.
The sculpture will travel to Green Bay when the traveling wall returns May 18-25. From there he would like to take the piece around the state to different cities and towns so that as many veterans and their families can experience it. Ideally he would take back roads on the journeys and stop in towns along the way that ask him to show the piece there for a short period of time.
“It’s all a matter of funding,” Hamilton said. “I am doing all this out of my own pocket.”
Hamilton said the Men of Honor group out of Wausau has been not only supportive but encouraged him.
While many of his sculptures have been tied in some way to the Vietnam War, Hamilton says “The Journey” is his last in a series of works to honor his fellow Vietnam Veterans. He would like to move on to work honoring those who have served in more recent wars.
The unveiling of “The Journey” will be at 1 p.m. Monday at the River Valley Bank Tomahawk branch at 1218 4th Street.

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