SOUTH SIOUX CITY | An unseasonably chilly breeze whipping through a dusty construction area isn't going to deter war veterans from paying tribute to fallen comrades.
They've put up with much worse circumstances.
Eighteen pilots, many of whom hadn't seen each other in 45 years, reunited in Sioux City on Thursday. The veterans, all fighter pilots who flew missions in the Vietnam War, served in the 174th Tactical Fighter Squadron, the flying squadron of the 185th Tactical Fighter Group, now known as the 185th Air Refueling Wing.
They had gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the 1969 return of their unit from Vietnam. But at this particular moment, they were standing in the dirt, remembering one of their own at the newly erected replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the first attractions of Siouxland Freedom Park in South Sioux City.
"One of the guys we lost in Vietnam is on the wall right here," said Dick Pietro, motioning over his shoulder to the polished black granite wall that contains the name of Warren Brown, the lone 174th pilot who was killed in action in the war. Another unit member, Harold Berg, died in an accident in Vietnam. His name, too, can be found on the wall.
They're not the only two names familiar to these veterans. Anyone of his generation, Pietro said, can find friends, relatives and acquaintances among the more than 58,000 names listed on the memorial, an exact half-scale replica of the Washington, D.C., landmark.
"Everybody our age knows somebody on that wall," Pietro said.
The granite plates arrived earlier this month. Soon after that, veterans such as those of the 174th, have come to see the wall as it takes shape and to find names, even if it means walking around workers busily readying it for a May 28 dedication ceremony.
The memorial's powerful attraction is felt even though it sits amidst bare ground yet to be landscaped.
Those who feel the need to come so soon see past the dust and scattered chunks of cement. In their minds, it's already a peaceful place to remember the sacrifices made by so many.
Mike Newhouse, president of Siouxland Freedom Park Inc., the group developing the $4 million, 55-acre park project dedicated to those who have served and died for their country, said there already has been a steady stream of visitors. Newhouse said the 174th's group visit will prove to be typical.
"For them, it's a pilgrimage," Newhouse said. "There will be many, many cases like that."
Stories abound of the touching moments observed at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington. Aging veterans breaking down in tears. Visitors who come in the middle of the night so as to be left alone. Photos, medals and other mementos left to honor the fallen.
"I can guarantee you that scenarios that take place in Washington will also take place here," Newhouse said. "There are a lot more Vietnam veterans around here than people think."
The park, a dream since the The Wall That Heals, a traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial, stopped here in 2007, is taking shape. It's hoped that ground will be broken this summer on a 12,000-square-foot interpretive center.
Newhouse said another $1.5 million has yet to be raised to finish a park he referred to as "a diamond in the rough that we're polishing daily."
To the retired pilots who visited last week, it couldn't have shined any brighter.
"It's more impressive than I thought it would be," said Bill Bowen, of Connecticut, one of those pilots who was back in town.
Not nearly as impressive as the men and women it honors.