SALT LAKE CITY — Local veterans of the Vietnam War say a bill making the rounds in this year’s legislative session would not only honor their service, but it would also help preserve their legacy.
House Bill 275 is simple: It would rename the existing portions of Interstate 84 within Utah as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway and require that the Utah Department of Transportation designate it as such on future state highway maps.
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, is the sponsor of the bill and said it was spearheaded by Pleasant View Vietnam veteran Frank Maughan, who also serves as commander of Utah’s Military Order of the Purple Heart.
Maughan said the genesis of the bill came when he learned that the sections of I-84 running through Oregon and Idaho have already been designated as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway.
“I got an email from my (MOPH) counterparts in Oregon and Idaho,” he said. “They had just had their portions of I-84 designated and hoped that we would join them.”
Maughan said he quickly got to work, trying to find local lawmakers who could help him. Fawson, who served in the Utah National Guard from 1996 to 2005, said he was more than happy to pitch in.
“I had a lot different reception from the public when I came home (from duty),” Fawson said, referring to the ridicule and alienation many Vietnam veterans endured upon returning from the war. “I kind of viewed this as a very small way to help right that wrong.”
Fawson said the bill has no financial implications and that signage along the corridor would be replaced as it gets old, under the state’s normal procedures.
“If we wanted to expedite replacing the signage, we would probably look to do some fundraisers,” he said. “Some of the veterans have already expressed interest in that.”
Several Ogden-area Vietnam veterans spoke on behalf of the bill in a House Transportation Standing Committee meeting this month. The House passed the bill on to the Senate on Feb. 24.
“We’d be very honored,” said Tom Montez, a recipient of two Purple Hearts for his service during the Vietnam War. “It would allow those that travel on the highway to understand that their freedom was paid for by those that fought in that unpopular war. They live in a free society that was paid for by the blood and guts (of veterans).”
Ogden resident Dennis Howland serves as president of the Northern Utah chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America. He told the committee that an average of 390 Vietnam veterans die every day across the United States, so honoring those who are still alive becomes more pressing with each passing day.
“It’s important to do things like this to acknowledge their service before they are just a voice of the past,” he said. “This is Utah’s oppurtunity to say ‘We won’t forget you. Thank you for your service.’ ”
Maughan said he hopes road trippers from all over the country will take note of what he and his fellow soldiers did.
“The hope is that anyone traveling along I-84, from Echo (Utah) all the way to Portland (Ore.) will see the (Vietnam veterans) signage,” he said. “And that should spark some conversations about Vietnam and all of us who served there.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 28,000 Utahns served in Vietnam and more than 50,000 Vietnam veterans call Utah home today.