State Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, addresses attendees May 1 at the grand opening of this college’s Victory Center at East Dewey Place and North Main Avenue. Thomas Macias (360 photo)
State senator recalls challenges of securing funding for the project.
By Thomas Macias
A framed Prisoner of War/Missing in Action flag was presented to retired Air Force Col. Thomas McNish to hang in the new Victory Center at a ceremony May 1 celebrating the opening of the two-story, 22,000-square-foot building.
The flag was framed and presented by McNish’s wife, Yona McNish, and son Timothy Hammonds. May 1 was the Vietnam veteran’s 76th birthday.
In an interview, McNish said he was shot down in September 1966 while flying an F-105 fighter over the then-North Vietnam.
Hammonds said McNish spent 6 1/2 years in captivity and that the POW/MIA flag would hang in the Victory Center “forever, so that we never forget those POWs and MIAs until they all come home.”
In remarks at the ceremony, McNish said he accepted the flag on behalf of the 661 other American POWs who returned with him in 1973, for the over 1,500 men who remain missing from the war and for the less than 2,000 World War II POWs still living.
Unlike Korean War POWs, McNish said he and other Vietnam War captives were warmly welcomed upon their return to the United States.
In an interview, McNish said in the Korean War a small number of American POWs had been brainwashed and indoctrinated by North Korean captors and had offended many Americans back home by their poor conduct in captivity.
McNish said all Korean POWs were “painted with the same black brush,” causing them to be inappropriately treated upon their return.
McNish said that the greatest good to come out of the Vietnam War was that American POWs again received their due respect, contrary to the abuses heaped on Korean War POWs.
“Thank God that doesn’t happen today; thank God it doesn’t,” he said.
Other speakers at the event were state Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio; U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas; Chairman Eliseo “Al” Cantu of the Texas Veterans Commission; Dr. Yvonne Katz, chairman of the Alamo Colleges board of trustees; Dr. Bruce Leslie, chancellor; Dr. Robert Vela, college president; and Kayla Salwey, Student Government Association president.
Menéndez in 2015 secured a $9 million appropriation from the state Legislature, $7.6 million of which was earmarked for the Victory Center.
In remarks, he recalled visiting this campus in 2015 and noting the inadequate space available to personnel administering veterans services.
Menéndez said he had a conversation with college President Robert Vela on the topic where Vela concurred with his observations and spoke of conceptual plans to upgrade veterans facilities.
This college has about 3,500 military-affiliated students who comprise about 10 percent of enrollment.
Vela said that several weeks following the conversation, Menéndez phoned to inform him that he would immediately be pursuing funding efforts and needed the building plans by the next morning.
Vela said he spent a busy night consolidating information but was able to meet Menéndez’s deadline.
Menéndez said that Vela’s preparedness enabled him to successfully advocate for state funding. He also called to mind a former high school coach who characterized “luck” as the meeting of opportunity and preparation.
In an interview following the grand opening, Menéndez spoke of several challenges in gaining state appropriations for the Victory Center.
“In a state where we are very (fiscally) conservative, identifying the resources and money is not easy, so sometimes the negotiations you have to do in politics to get stuff done (was challenging),” Menéndez said.
Menéndez said another challenge arose in striving to maximize the impact of the funds.
“An obstacle for me was second (guessing) ‘did we do the most we could do, could we have stretched it a little more? … Could we have put vet housing on top of the building?’” Menéndez said.
Cantu, a service member for 31 years, said, “This Victory Center victory is in our DNA. Victory is what we stand for and sign up for, what we push for, whether it is victory supporting our community, whether it’s victory supporting our wounded warriors, whether it’s victory supporting our active duty, that’s victory, and (this) facility is second to none.”
In closing his remarks, Menéndez said that he noticed the Victory Center was marked as Building 22 but suggested that its number be changed to six.
Menéndez said that in military terminology the number six (the directional six o’clock position and the blind-spot behind a person) “means we’ve got your back. I’d love to see a number six up there saying this building means ‘we’ve got your back.’”
Attendees take a tour of the newly-opened Victory Center May 1 following a grand opening ceremony. Thomas Macias (360 photo)