A tribute to Vietnam veterans in wood
Off the beaten path on county Route 50 in the Town of Dansville (Steuben County) stands a lone sentinel guard in military fatigues carved from a massive red oak tree looking out at the landscape.
“That tree stood out in front of the property and it was the catalyst for naming our land Oak Tree Farm. When the tree had to come down and 12 feet of it were left, I thought what a shame to lose that symbolic tree,” said John Senka, former owner of the Senka Independent Insurance Agency, Montour Falls.
Senka retired with his wife, Sandy, to family land in Wayland last year. Senka is a native of Arkport.
“During the past four or five years I thought that we would have something carved into the tree. Always in the back of my mind was a memorial for Vietnam veterans,” said Senka, himself a Vietnam veteran who saw combat in 1967-1969.
The six-foot soldier stands on a six-foot base. It is stained in a log cabin red. There is nothing around it presently.
“It is a work in progress,” said Senka. “I want to keep it simple. I want to create some type of park like setting with benches where someone can come and sit a bit and be with his own thoughts.”
Although the sculpture is on private property, Senka is open to local legion posts coming to use it. He is willing to accept donations for benches and plaques.
The Senkas have saved chunks of the oak tree and they are considering offering them to Vietnam veterans and their families on a limited basis for a nominal fee to line the perimeter of the park with plaques similar to a memorial brick concept.
An American flag will be placed nearby. Already there are wind chimes and a birdhouse positioned to add to the peaceful atmosphere according to Senka.
There is thought being put into having an ammo box on a pole, which would house a blank journal for those passing by to stop, reflect and write their comments.
Finding the carver that would be able to execute the sculpture took time. Eventually, Rick Pratt, Corfu was selected. The Senkas already knew him and his work.
“His son and father were in the military and Pratt seemed to have insight into veteran’s issues,” said Senka. “He threw himself into the project and even wore my heavy steel metal combat helmet while he worked.”
In two days Pratt completed the carving. Senka felt assured that this was indeed the man who was supposed to do it.
There will be two inscriptions on plaques to go with the soldier that are meaningful to Senka. One is a statement made at the opening of the Vietnam Memorial in Arkport, which Senka and his friend, Danny Hartwell, spearheaded several years ago. They grew up together and went through school before going to the military.
“It didn’t seem to be such a great honor at the time, but looking back at it, I realize now what a privilege it was to be given the opportunity to engage the enemies of our country on the field of battle; a privilege granted to relatively few men in this country,” said retired Marine Sgt. Jack Howe speaker at the ceremony, then living in Wayland.
The second plaque says, “This memorial is a personal tribute to the men of Charlie Company, 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry, U.S. Army 25th Infantry Division for their ultimate sacrifice at ‘Mole City’, Republic of Vietnam, December 22, 1968.
Senka was the only one of his three buddies to come out of the bunker alive. Their names are listed as part of the inscription.
“It was harder to come home in some respects than to die in Vietnam. It was painful to have to live after that—the physical and psychological wounds,” said Senka, author of the book, “Wounded Bodies-Healing Spirits,” his own personal journey with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and acute clinical depression written in 2004.
With the support of Sandy and his three now grown children, Senka worked at restoring his life. “It was therapeutic to write for me.”
The book is out of print. Senka is thinking about doing a reprint in light of the need to get PTSD recognized to a greater extent with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“There was an unbelievable response to the book and I say it with all humility. First I thought people who knew me and had read the book were being kind to me in their comments. Then I was getting messages left on my answering machine and phone calls from complete strangers. My story is their story—the same story,” said Senka.
Reaction to the carving has been positive. Within the first three weeks of the appearance of the statue, there have been veterans stopping to tell their own stories and offer their support.
“One trucker driving down the road stopped short right in the middle of the road to look and give a thumbs-up,” said Senka.
“I want this to be sacred ground. I want an unspoken demeanor similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
As for finding this new memorial, you will need to drive on Route 21 south from Wayland, turning onto County Route 50 for two and a half miles.
War doesn’t end when the conflict is over. What one does as a veteran with the scars of his duty is the healing balm John Senka found in the old red oak tree on his boyhood farm.