You believe Sherman Alston when he says, "This project means everything in the world to me."
You believe it because, while he's talking, Alston looks you straight in the eye, punching a desktop with his index finger to underline every word.
"And what people need to remember is, this Veteran's Memorial is not going to be a war memorial," he continues, talking and punching. "It's a human memorial ... for every veteran that's served this country."
The idea of a permanent local memorial to all the nation's military veterans is not Alston's, as he is the first to tell you. Maybe a dozen local American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War members have been kicking the idea around and bringing it to varying stages of development for years.
Nor is Alston the sole Payson veteran doing everything he can to turn the idea into a reality. There are a handful of others who are just as dedicated as this man.
But it's unlikely that anyone in town could sell this dream with more passion and conviction.
Thanks in part to his sales pitch, the Payson Town Council gave its approval July 13 to erect the Veteran's Memorial a block and concrete structure which will fly Old Glory, the Arizona State flag, and the POW/MIA flag near the outer, parking-lot edge of the area in Green Valley Park where the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial Wall stood last May. Additionally, the councilmembers promised that the town would match, dollar-for-dollar, any funds raised for the project up to $9,000.
"The next steps," Alston said, "are to form a joint committee with the town, get that committee up and going, agree on the final-final design, and come up with the money to construct which will total from $16,000 to $18,000 if a contractor comes in and builds it, gratis."
Alston knows he's shooting high, but he hopes to celebrate the memorial's grand unveiling Nov. 11 at 11 a.m. or 11-11-11, the celebrated date and time of the official end of WWI, which was eventually transformed into Veteran's Day.
The making of a vet
Born in Morenci, Ariz. about 55 miles northeast of Safford and raised in Thatcher about three miles west of Safford Alston was drafted into the Army in 1970.
His military service lasted only 18 months, but he spent a year of that in Vietnam. And although Alston never saw actual combat, he witnessed his share of horrors and close calls.
One of his assignments during that time was to help set up a drug detoxification center at the Tuihoa Airbase.
"Whenever any GIs were on their way out of Vietnam, and they tested positive for drugs, they were automatically sent over to our center," Alston explained. "I saw people OD and nearly die right in front of me. Young people with tracks everywhere tracks could be: underneath their tongues, between their toes, anywhere they could hide them where they couldn't be seen.
"It was a good experience for me as far as drug education goes. I was 21 years old, and there was no question in my mind that drugs can destroy you."
Of course, he said, at that time, simply being in Vietnam could destroy you.
"There was probably three times I should have been killed," Alston said. "In Tuihoa, two of us were doing perimeter security when a (mortar attack) burst came right across us. Neither one of us got hit. I don't know how or why, but that was the closest I came to not making it home."
Another hair-raising moment occurred when a GI was reported shooting off an M-16 in his barracks, and Alston and his partner both MPs were sent to investigate.
When they arrived at the scene, the GI aimed the weapon at Alston's partner as Alston grabbed a shotgun and ducked behind a jeep.
"I was sitting there wondering, 'Do I shoot him?' It was the hardest decision I'd ever been faced with. But all of a sudden, he trained his gun on me then turned around and left. But I had come very close to shooting one of our own guys."
Like so many Vietnam veterans, Alston wasn't prepared for the kind of homecoming he received upon completion of his tour of duty. In fact, he was so unprepared, he said, "It took me about 15 years before I got to the point where I could admit I was a Vietnam vet.
"When we first came back, the protests were going. I got spit at, I got verbally abused. We were looked down upon by everyone, it seemed.
"I'd go to American Legion clubs and VFWs, and the members would look down on you too, because they thought Vietnam veterans were really messed up," Alston said. "They'd heard all the horror stories about how Vietnam vets were drugged up and mentally off balance, and believed them. They were just misinformed. But I understood. I really did."
He must have, because today Alston boasts a 15-year membership in the American Legion, which he says "played a huge part in my whole healing process." Getting involved, and interacting with veterans helped Alston not only regain his pride, but find a purpose.
"Today," he said, "my primary goal is to help all veterans."
One way to do that, of course, is to help build a shrine to their memory although Alston himself still has difficulty dealing with his own memories of lost comrades.
"When the Vietnam Memorial Wall was in town, there were six names I wanted to look up ... but I just couldn't do it," he said. "But I took my wife, grandson and niece to the wall. I pointed to the date when I got to Vietnam, and the date when I got out. I said, 'Look at how many people are on the wall between those two days.' There was like three-and-a-half or four columns of names.
"'That's how many GIs got killed in Vietnam while I was there,' I told them. "'Don't ever forget that. Please don't ever forget that.'"
To donate labor, materials, money, or help to the creation of the Veteran's Memorial, contact the American Legion at 474-6969, and ask for Alston, Joe Tunno or Club Manager Kathy Alston, Sherman's wife.