On a pensive day, the streets wet, the trees stark,
the peck of footsteps hastily crisscrossing Capitol Park, Ken
Nelson has reported for duty. The former
Marine, much-decorated for valor, is stationed on a park
bench, armed with a can of lemon Pledge and a soiled white rag.
"I keep it clean," he says, gesturing
to the solemn California Vietnam Veterans Memorial just a few
paces from his bench, which itself is a memorial to the late B.T.
Collins, a legendary figure who helped get the memorial built.
Before Collins' death in March 1993, Nelson made an oath that he
would stand guard over the site.
"I make sure no one is doing anything
outrageous to the memorial," says Nelson, a gunnery sergeant
who answers to the nickname "Gunny."
"I take a lot of pride in this. These
are my brothers. This is sacred ground. You have to respect
it. You have to protect it."
Nelson is 58 years old.
He is a trim man with a puffed-up bearing and a noticeable limp.
He is wearing biker gloves, creased corduroys, shined shoes, a
nylon jacket ablaze with flags, patches, campaign pins. He has a
wary eye, a beaming smile. He's full of war
stories, heroic anecdotes, stormy soliloquies.
For the past 15 years, in a self-appointed
mission, Gunny Nelson has stood daily vigil at the memorial. He
polishes the bronze. He sweeps the granite. He acts as an
impromptu tour guide, a living soldier, for schoolchildren. And he
swiftly censures what he deems inappropriate behavior: drinking,
eating, loud talking, lounging, wedding party pictures, etc.
Such vigilance hasn't gone unnoticed. Or
unrecognized. Veteran groups have applauded him. The
state Senate issued a glowing resolution. Sanford Ross,
a Vietnam veteran who files claims on behalf of veterans and who
heads the Military Order of the Purple Heart, says of Nelson,
"He's a dedicated Marine."
Mike Nivens is chief of the Protective Services
Division for the California Highway Patrol, whose officers patrol
"He's the unofficial watchdog for the
Vietnam Memorial," says Nivens of Nelson. "He's very
committed to it. He's very protective of it. If there are ever any
problems, he lets us know."
At dusk, his duty done, Nelson is back in his
quarters. He lives on the top floor of a public housing high-rise
in midtown. His apartment, a war memorial, is filled with news
clippings, photographs, awards and citations. His window gives a
commanding view of the city, now streaked in purple. In an easy
chair, in an eagle's nest, Gunny Nelson takes night watch.
He was raised poor in Arlington, Va., schooled
during a fractious era of desegregation. Drafted,
he served in Vietnam from 1967 to 1970, shouldering a 60mm mortar
whose pet name was Gertrude. He survived the great Battle of Khe
Coming back, he stayed active for a few more
years, until he was issued a medical discharge. In 1970, he moved
out West and drove a cab in Oakland. In another act of heroism, he
was honored for rescuing people trapped by the collapse of
Interstate 880 during the Loma Prieta earthquake in October 1989.
Then, his own defenses crumbled, and Gunny Nelson went into a
tailspin. Today, he lives on veteran benefits and a disability
Now, beneath a pearl sky, he sits on this bench,
in comforting perimeter of the memorial.
"Yeah," he admits. "It's therapy
The day advances. People walk by. Office
workers. A homeless woman named Rita. A park gardener in a utility
cart. A CHP bike officer. Everyone waves at this lone sentry.
Some camera-toting tourists arrive. They saunter
about, snapping pictures of the site. Inadvertently, they step on
the bronze relief map of South Vietnam. A no-no.
"Please get off the map!" barks
Nelson, gesturing to move back with his gloved hand. The tourists
peer down, sheepishly bow and quickly retreat.
The armistice resumes.
"I never thought I would be here this
long," says Nelson. "But I need to be here. This is a
piece of history. My history. Other veterans' history. It must be