As we mark another Veterans Day, we’re reminded to never forget veterans’ service and sacrifice for this country. Members of the American Legion Daniel M. O’Connell Post #272 stood by Rockaway’s “Doughboy” statue on Beach 94th Street as they marked the occasion on November 11, but they didn’t forget a powerful tribute across the street, dedicated to the women veterans who served this country, as one member laid roses at her feet. After all, it was their idea. The monument made history when she was dedicated in 1989, as the first statue dedicated to women veterans in New York City. That title would stick, as today, she remains as the only one, and she calls Rockaway home.
The Rockaway Times recently reached out to the artist who created the eight-foot tall, strong bronze female military figure that has watched over Rockaway Beach Boulevard for 31 years, to find out more about her story.
Around 1986, the American Legion Daniel M. O’Connell Post #272 decided to give women veterans the recognition they deserved in New York City. According to a New York Times article from the time, the group decided to sponsor and finance the statue to be built and placed next to the Doughboy statue, which had been there since 1927. They acquired the permits they thought they needed for the placement, they held community fundraisers to support the effort and they soon turned to Eileen Barry, a talented sculptor from East Islip who was putting on the finishing touches for a Gold Star Parents Monument for Veterans Memorial Highway in Holbrook. Post #272 signed a $68,000 contact with Barry, entrusting her with creating a statue that perfectly encapsulated the women of the armed forces.
“It was a great group of men and women and the fact that they were interested in a statue for women was marvelous, inspiring and hopeful. This took guts. The fact that they wanted a sculpture for women showed a strong belief in the country and women. Even though it was the ‘80s, it wasn’t being done and they wanted to do it,” Barry told The Rockaway Times.
Barry took the honor to task with full dedication. After listening to what Post # 272 envisioned, Barry went straight to the source for inspiration. Barry began speaking to women military members she had gotten to know and scoping out American Legion posts to ask if there were other women veterans who would be willing to speak with her and be photographed. “You have to put so much into a sculpture. She’s gotta represent so many different personalities and attitudes and it was a great honor and responsibility,” Barry said.
After speaking to military women, it was clear that certain attributes had to shine through in her work—that of power, strength and dignity. “These were strong women that went into the military. It took a lot of guts and belief in themselves. That impressed me the most. They were so sure of themselves and many of them were very young. But they believed in themselves, therefore they believed in the country,” Barry said. She wanted her monument to reflect the same. And she pulled it off. “You see it in her face, in her posture, in her fist, you see that strength, you feel that dignity and you know that she’s not a shrinking violet,” Barry said.
Those of the American Legion Daniel M. O’Connell Post #272 felt the same. After being presented with a 21-inch maquette, or model, of Barry’s concept, they approved. “Fortunately, they liked it,” Barry said. So she continued on with her eight-foot bronze sculpture that would show the first women veteran in all her glory, decked in military fatigues, with her helmet at her side and a bag of vital information on her back.
Unfortunately, not everyone approved. As they were preparing to install Barry’s work next to the Doughboy monument, Post #272 ran into a snag. The city’s Art Commission deemed it “not strong enough artistically” and would not permit it on city land. It was a hurdle those of the American Legion, which had good intentions, did not know they would encounter. ''When we started on the project, we had never heard of an Art Commission,'' Jerry Klein, Post 272's treasurer told the New York Times in July 1989.
However, Post #272 was granted permission to place it across the street from the Doughboy, for up to a year, to allow time to find another location.
On September 24, 1989, the First Women Veterans Monument was dedicated in a ceremony, surrounded by military women. The female members of West Point came down for the day for the dedication. “It was a wonderful day,” Barry said.
To solidify her importance, Barry also made visits to local schools to explain the significance of the sculpture. “I thought it was important for kids to understand what it was and why it was important,” she said.
Thirty-one years later, it seems that lesson stuck. The Women Veterans Monument is still standing. In a 2003 New York Times article, then NYC Parks commissioner Adrian Benepe said, ''It's one of the few works of art that stayed on beyond their temporary status because there was community sentiment in favor of them.” All these years later, it seems this bronze woman warrior, is showing no signs of losing this battle. The piece is regularly maintained, including undergoing special preservation work following Hurricane Sandy in 2013, and is noted as one of the city’s many monuments on the Parks Department website.
All these years later, Barry says she still pays her a visit. “I come out every six to eight months, just to say hello,” she said. Although she says the patina renovation work has changed it somewhat, she is happy to know that the statue hasn’t been vandalized, and most importantly, is still standing. “I think it’s a testament to the sculpture. People do like it. It’s not a minimal, abstract piece. It’s real and true and I think that when people come up to it, it connects with people,” she said.
Barry says she hopes it connects in an even bigger way, and that her work doesn’t remain as the only women veterans monument in NYC. “I think it is a strong, powerful testament to the men and women of the American Legion Post #272 for commissioning this, but it’s also sad that she’s the only one. Hopefully it will be understood that this is an oversight by NYC. There should be more of these monuments dedicated to the women who fought for this country,” Barry said.
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