The spacious grounds of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church, just south of the UNC Charlotte campus, have a new monument honoring armed forces members, thanks to the labors of 16-year-old Vincent Vu.
Vincent, the oldest of three siblings in the family of Tien and Anh Vu of the University City area, completed the most difficult step of his path to Eagle Scout earlier this month by building the monument at his family's church.
To become an Eagle Scout, the highest rank in Boy Scouts of America, Vu had to earn 21 merit badges, hold leadership roles in his Troop 232 and complete a service project approved by local Scouting leaders.
Vincent's service project was a natural, given his family history and his own plans.
"I owe being here to veterans," said Vincent, a high school junior, "because my grandparents came over here for freedoms that veterans fought and died for."
His parents, Tien and Anh Vu, came to the U.S. separately as teenagers after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, in 1975. They met at church when both their families ended up in Charlotte after brief stays in other states.
Vincent's father, Tien Vu, recalled how his mother had been distraught when he turned 18 and had to register for the military draft, fearing that her family would once again find itself in the throes of war. Now, a generation later, the father strongly supports his son's ambition to gain admission to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point after graduating from Charlotte Catholic High School next year.
"My wife and I would be very proud if he joins the military," said Tien Vu, "and in doing so, pay back something to the country that gave us a new life here in the U.S."
Besides the family history, Vincent said, his church has a large number of veterans.
"About 26 percent of armed forces are Catholic, so that explains why there are a lot of vets in our church," Vincent said.
The future Eagle (final paperwork and interviews are pending) spent more than 60 hours laboring on the project. He was able to recruit family members, troop members and friends to contribute a total of 221 hours.
Vincent said he ran several design ideas by his father, and he admitted that his earlier, more ambitious designs were tempered both by financial and engineering realities. He described the more modest final product as "a simple yet still solemn memorial."
His biggest struggle during construction came on the first day, preparing the foundation. He had called 811 to check for any underground cables or pipes, but the crew that arrived at the site mistakenly checked a different area of the church grounds.
"When we dug into it, I almost cut a cable, so we had to slow down work to avoid cutting anything or hurting anybody," said Vincent.
Besides that delay, the weather turned nasty, and his crew decided to stay on to complete enough work to keep further rains from wiping out their efforts. So one planned six-hour workday turned into a 13-hour marathon.
The local parish's Knights of Columbus chapter donated $380 to the eventual $1,200 total cost of materials; the largest expense was the purchase of the inscribed granite plaque set in the brick column.
The plaque reads, "In gratitude to the contributions of the veterans of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish past, present and future."
The monument was completed on Sept. 11 - an ending that Vincent said was coincidental but no less fitting for that.