Vietnam Veterans of America
From Sea to Shining Sea: An Oregon Veterans Highway Aspires to Span the Nation
BY GREGORY McNAMEE
There’s a start-and-stop road just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C., that bears a Virginia highway designation, Route 123. It starts as Chain Bridge Road, becomes the Dolley Madison Highway, goes back to Chain Bridge Road, becomes Maple Avenue, goes back once again to Chain Bridge Road, and ends up as Ox Road until its terminus 30-odd winding miles south.
There’s an interstate highway, the nation’s southernmost, that picks up where Sunset Boulevard ends at the Pacific Ocean—Sunset Boulevard being the end of Route 66, both fabled Los Angeles destinations. Interstate 10 begins as the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway, becomes the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway, turns into the Maricopa Freeway and runs along as the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway once again until, deep into Texas, it becomes the Katy Freeway, changing its name a few more times before becoming—finally and once again—the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway in Florida, where, after 2,460 miles, it meets the Atlantic Ocean.
The point of detailing these bicoastal meanderings is simple: A road can have more than one name, and often many of them. What’s complicated is getting those different names attached to a particular stretch of asphalt.
Enter Allan Richard Tobiason, a longtime VVA member. Now 85 and living in Bend, Oregon, Dick Tobiason is a retired Army lieutenant colonel who served two tours in Vietnam as a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft pilot, then went on to work for the airline industry and, for a time, NASA, where he was the only Army aviator ever nominated to become an Apollo astronaut.
Holder of two Legion of Merit Medals, 15 Air Medals, a Bronze Star, and a Purple Heart, among other honors, he is indisputably a man of accomplishment. It also seems fair to say that Tobiason has both a thing for monuments and a take-charge attitude. In the last two decades he’s raised more than a million dollars, funded memorials and markers, traveled tirelessly across the country to address state and national organizations and politicians, organized dozens of projects and hundreds of volunteers, and worked with the Oregon Department of Transportation to give new designations to, and place signs on, nearly 2,500 miles of state and federal highways—one sign every 65 miles, roughly, every one of which he’s driven more than once.
Tobiason’s highway project began in 2005. Now, in some states such as Virginia, it’s a fairly easy matter to attach names to stretches of road; municipalities can do so, if they pay for the signs. Typically the honor is extended to public figures, most often law enforcement officers who have fallen in the line of duty. In the case of Oregon, it’s more complicated; it takes legislative action. Until recently, the Oregon State Legislature met in full session only every other year, making for a crowded legislative schedule.
The first time around, Tobiason’s idea was turned down flat, even though he’d worked out all the proper legalese and had lobbied a few politicians. Then he realized a subtle flaw in his plan: Where his language originally said that such and such a highway shall be known as X or Y, he inserted a single word: “shall also be known as X or Y.”
That single word was the ticket, and soon enough US Highway 395, which traverses the state north–south from the border with California nearly to the border with Washington in the hilly, dry eastern portion of the state, boasted ten signs designating it as, among other names, the World War I Veterans Memorial Highway. None of Oregon’s World War I veterans was alive to enjoy the honor, but members of local VVA chapters and other service organizations helped commemorate the event.
Designating US Highway 97, another border-to-border route that passes through Tobiason’s hometown of Bend, as the state’s World War II Veterans Historic Highway was a logical next step. The “historic” portion of the name speaks to the fact that along the route were Army airfields, training grounds, and other installations. Interstate 5, a major federal artery that runs from Canada to Mexico and bisects the state’s most populous areas, came to bear the designation Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway—and, later, because of that “also,” took on another name, the Purple Heart Trail. The latter is observed in California and Washington as well, making it the first highway so designated that reaches two international borders.
Inarguably the most beautiful thoroughfare in the state, US Highway 101 runs along the Pacific Coast. Thanks to Tobiason’s activism, it now honors the veterans of America’s most recent conflicts. It’s called the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Memorial Highway. It is the first of its kind in the nation, bearing eleven signs to inform travelers just where they are.
A COMRADESHIP OF ARMS
In the mix, of course, is Vietnam. Tobiason met a little resistance getting the designation through the legislature (which now meets annually), but the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway now runs along the scenic Columbia River from Portland, Oregon’s largest city, to the Idaho border on Interstate 84.
Another highway runs roughly parallel to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway through the middle of the state, also passing through Bend. The longest road at 451 miles, the Oregon Medal of Honor Highway follows US Highway 20 from the ocean to the Idaho border—and each of the other highways, by design, intersects with it at some point, joining the veterans of each conflict into a comradeship of arms. Thirty Oregonians have been awarded the Medal of Honor over the years spanning the Civil War to the Vietnam War. One of them, Robert D. Maxwell, is a director of the Bend Heroes Foundation and a close friend of Tobiason. Maxwell performed with conspicuous gallantry in combat during World War II.
Under the auspices of that foundation, which he chairs, Dick Tobiason also has raised more than $1.2 million to help fund not just those highway projects—to which a POW/MIA Memorial Highway was added in the last legislative session then temporarily postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic—but also other memorials. The foundation also is working to rename regional VA facilities in honor of Oregonian Medal of Honor recipients, add Gold Star signage to rest stops throughout the state, and build a Vietnam War memorial by the Oregon World War II Memorial at the state capitol in Salem. Tobiason proudly notes that the first dollars he raised came from VVA members, with contributions ranging from $25 to $10,000.
The total to date is impressive: 89 highway signs now honor the 479,800 Oregon veterans who served over the course of a century, some of whom died, some of whom were wounded, some were taken prisoner, and some remain missing in action.
“I believe in symbolism,” says the impossibly busy Tobiason, who cheerfully admits to sometimes stepping on toes to get things done—but who undeniably does get things done. “It helps us remember.”
He’s now working on still another project, lobbying Congress to request that the entirety of US Highway 20, which spans 12 states for a total distance of 3,365 miles, be designated the National Medal of Honor Highway. Other routes are possible, he allows, but US 20 is especially well suited to the task: it parallels the Lincoln Highway and other transcontinental routes, and nearly two-thirds of all the nation’s Medal of Honor awardees have come from the dozen states in question. The legislatures of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska have already designated their states’ portions of the highway accordingly, and Iowa and Indiana are on board to do so. What remains is for Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Massachusetts to join in. Tobiason is on the case.
Because a highway can have several names, Tobiason has issued a challenge to his fellow Vietnam War veterans. It goes like this: Interstate 84 doesn’t end at the Oregon border. It continues on into Idaho and western Utah, for a total length of 770 miles. Way off in the east, not far from Scranton, Pennsylvania, it picks up again, crossing New York and Connecticut until ending roughly midway through Massachusetts, between Springfield and Boston. Between those two segments of I–84 falls a gap of about 2,000 miles.
“Why not have Vietnam veterans work to fill in all the spaces in between to create a highway that runs from sea to shining sea: the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Highway?” Tobiason asks. Such a highway would parallel the proposed Medal of Honor Highway, which, barring some unforeseen obstacle, looks to soon become a certainty. Tobiason has already charted out possible routes. Because they’re on existing roads, it would cost only time and funds for signage to span the nation and honor Vietnam veterans. “Every veterans group needs a project,” he jokes.
Highways are just a means to an end, allows Dick Tobiason, now 15 years into his road-naming project. “The whole objective is to honor our veterans, and road signs are a visible, easy way to do that.”
There’s much more to be done, but he’s off to a good start.
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