By Srianthi Perera
An inspirational Arizona landmark will soon begin to take shape in Gilbert.
The Welcome Home Veterans Park, anchored by an 80 percent scale of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., is due to start construction.
The memorial wall, named The Arizona Wall Project, will be one of the main features of the Welcome Home Veterans Park, which will occupy a 5-acre plot of land near Gilbert and Warner roads that has been dedicated by the town of Gilbert with an initial 30-year lease.
About $1.5 million of the $3 million project has been secured, some in kind, and the balance has been pledged. Also, the construction has been awarded to general contractor MT Builders Companies of Scottsdale, said Lisa Rigler, project chair.
The first phase will consist of most of the outdoor installations and the memorial wall, while the building will be constructed in the second phase. The first phase is expected to take about nine months to build.
The park was first announced in 2015. Rigler said it took time to align the project’s various pieces.
“It took us years to write the land lease and get the land dedicated. The awareness campaign took time to get people to buy into the fact this is what we were going to do,” Rigler said. “We never had one person say, ‘This is a bad idea.’ Everybody has been really jazzed about what we’re doing. But it has taken us longer than expected.”
The Arizona Wall Project is part of the nonprofit Operation Welcome Home, Arizona, which provides welcoming ceremonies for returning veterans.
Five decades ago, returning Vietnam War veterans didn’t get the welcome they deserved.
In fact, they didn’t get a welcome at all.
“The American public didn’t care for the war a whole lot by then,” said Roger Pollard of Gilbert, who served in Vietnam in 1971. “There weren’t a lot of people who were coming over and shaking their hands and saying, ‘You did a good job’ or, ‘You are a patriotic guy.’ I never had anybody come over and shake my hand and say, ‘Welcome home.’”
Skip Erickson of Gilbert served from April 1968 to April 1969 at Phan Rang Air Base as a mechanic in the U.S. Air Force.
“In those days, we seemed to blame the soldier for the war, not the government,” Erickson said.
One of the lucky ones, he was met by his family upon his return. “While there was no big welcome home celebration, I was not as unfortunate as those who were spit on, harassed and called baby killers,” he said.
In 2013, Operation Welcome Home, Arizona began presenting ceremonies in Gilbert in the presence of military personnel and their families. Among them were Cory Remsburg, who served 10 deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and was seriously injured in 2009; and Vietnam veteran Rick Romley, who lost both his legs to a landmine.
Pollard and his wife, Betsy, attended the often emotional ceremonies.
“We saw many good, positive things. People were so grateful that this person had served in the military. Very different from what I had seen and my buddies had experienced many years ago,” Pollard said.
The couple got involved in the nonprofit and began helping plan the ceremonies, which are now held Valleywide.
Pollard, now its vice president, said a permanent park would honor veterans of all wars, not just the Vietnam War.
“We would be able to learn from what we did wrong in the past. Make sure we don’t do that same mistake in terms of welcoming home these people today. That’s the heart and soul of what the park is about,” he said.
As important is helping the veterans with their lives.
“We can’t just say ‘thank you’ and turn around and not do something,” he said. “We need to help them out. That was the basis for this.”
The park will serve as a place of reflection, healing and inspiration to veterans, their families and communities.
In addition to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it will feature a Walk of Time, with exhibits of past wars starting with the Revolutionary War, a pavilion dedicated to the consequences of war, a 12-by-4-foot map of Vietnam before the fall of Saigon, a walk of tranquility and a building housing an education center and a resource center where veterans could get direction on how to transfer to civilian life.
“Most people don’t understand the whole magnitude of it,” Rigler said. “It’s massive.”
Erickson said as veterans age and financial concerns arise, they won’t be able to make the trip to Washington to see the original wall.
“I believe this park will become a destination for many, many folks on the West Coast, certainly everyone in Arizona,” he said.
Another aspect of the monument is its educational value for the young.
“It will be an opportunity for future generations to learn and reflect on those that preceded them, and hopefully avoid mistakes that were made in this and all wars,” Erickson said.
“Regardless of politics, we need to make sure that from now on we teach kids that it’s honorable to serve in the military and we honor them and help them and that families make sacrifices,” Pollard said.
“There is no better way to teach youth gratitude and patriotism than to introduce them to a veteran,” Gilbert Mayor Jenn Daniels stated in a release. “Operation Welcome Home Veterans Park is a remarkable opportunity for us to connect the community to our veterans and to begin to understand the price of freedom. This site will be hallowed ground for every American.”
Besides pledging the land, which is a stone’s throw from the Gilbert Civic Center and adjacent to the Gilbert Police and Fire administration buildings, the town plans to build a parking lot, a bus pullout on Palm Lane, underground utility infrastructure and a directional sign at Gilbert Road and Civic Center Drive.
The town, however, will not maintain the site; those duties fall to the nonprofit.
Daniels was instrumental in starting the simple welcome home ceremonies in 2010 in the town. After establishing itself as a nonprofit, Operation Welcome Home Arizona formally took over the ceremonies and began growing the program in the Valley. Its other achievements are raising funds to establish the 911 memorial in Gilbert, organizing the nationwide Military Appreciation Month in East Valley schools during May, and accepting a commemorative partnership with the Department of Defense to mark the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War from 2015-17.
Under that partnership, the nonprofit brought the traveling Vietnam War memorial to Prescott, which attracted more than 10,000 people. It used the funds raised there to kick-start the current wall project.
“We knew we wanted something permanent when we saw 10,000 people there; it was an incredible experience for the committee who went up there,” Rigler said.
Today, the nonprofit is headed by an eight-member board and has about 60 active volunteers. Senator McCain, also a Vietnam veteran, is an honorary chair together with Romley and Remsburg. There are 10 Vietnamese volunteers providing their leadership as well.
Several fundraisers have been held around Arizona and more are being planned. Recently, the Vietnamese community raised $30,000 from a fashion show.
Rigler, who puts in more than 40 hours a week toward the project, said she feels a “gravitational pull” to tell the story of Vietnam veterans.
“They were spat on. They had to throw their uniforms away. They have the highest suicide rate. At least 22 veterans commit suicide each day and most of them are Vietnamese veterans because they haven’t told their stories and they just kept them inside,” she said. “Now they are getting up to their 70s and their children have moved out and they are retired.”
The consequences of war are awful and it’s important that the public understands it, Rigler said. The military must be treated well, she added.
“These people are protecting our freedoms each and every day. And yet, if we don’t turn it around now and welcome home our veterans, it’s going to be a repeat of Vietnam,” Rigler said. “We’re just going to go back to just spitting on our veterans. We can’t do that. We can’t let that happen again, ever.”