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The Highground Veterans Memorial Park

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you;

not as the world gives do I give to you.

Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

John 14:27

 

By: Gina Kay Singerhouse

Editor

 

(This article was printed in the 13th Annual Memorial Day Honors Special Issue of Strictly Country Magazine, 2016.)

 

   He wakes up in a terror.  Sitting straight up in bed, he shakes off the memories from his nightmares and grabs a t-shirt off his night stand to wipe the perspiration off of his face and body.

   Sleep.  If only he could get some sleep. He looks around the room of his childhood and remembers how his mother nearly had to douse him with water in order to wake him up when he was a kid.  Now, he's lucky if he can achieve a couple of hours of pure restful sleep.

   He runs his hand through his short cropped hair in resentment. He tosses the blankets off his sweat stained body and gets up.  The only thing that will clear his mind of his demons is a breath of night air.  He changes out of his sleep pants and puts on a fresh t-shirt and pair of jeans.  He quietly walks out of his bedroom, down the hall and pass his parent's bedroom.  As quietly as he can, he opens the front door and walks out to the front stoop and sits on the top step.  He takes a deep breath of the cool night air.

   As he looks up and down the street, he is reminded of his childhood days.  He spent many hours playing war with his buddies.  They would use anything as guns.  When they were young they used sticks and bats; as they got older they were given toy guns.   On hot summer days, balloons filled with water became grenades.  All that was replaced with video games when they became teenagers.  He was the best at all of it and all he dreamed about was being a soldier.  How things have changed...real war is nothing like the war portrayed in a video game.

   He takes another deep breath of the cool night air. He shakes his head as he stares at the house across the street.  His neighbor was some old guy who always seemed a bit crazy like he had a screw loose.  He and his friends dubbed him 'Ole Crazy Joe,' because he hated us kids playing in front of his house.

   He jumps and subconsciously reaches for his M16 rifle as he sees movement across the street.  He fears the worst, that the enemy has followed him home. His guard is still up as he recognizes his neighbor, Crazy Joe, walking across the street towards him.  He questions Joe's actions, 'now what did I do?' he asks in his mind.  Joe pauses in front of him.

   "Can't sleep?" asks Joe.

   Surprised at the question, he shakes his head back and forth.

   "Get ready and meet me at my truck in five minutes." demands Joe.  "Make sure you leave a note for your parents..."

   Joe turns and walks back to his house.  He is stunned and for the second time questions Joe's actions.  But something tells him to do as his neighbor requests.

   In five minutes he is dressed and is walking up to Joe's truck.

   "Get in..." demands Joe.

   "Where are we going?" he asks as he is unsure what his neighbor is up to.

   "When I can't sleep, I go for a drive." gently responds Joe.  "Since we both can't sleep, might as well have company for my drive..."

   Could this be a simple neighborly gesture on Joe's part?  All the years he has lived across the street from him, he has never heard of any kids in the neighborhood getting hurt by Joe.  He slightly let's his guard down and get's into the passenger side of the truck.  Joe starts the truck and begins the journey, a journey that he will never forget.  

   "Why can't you sleep?" he asks.

   "We all have demons son." replies Joe.  "We all have demons..."

   Staring out the window, he wonders what demons Joe has to deal with.  They couldn't be as bad as his. A few minutes go by in silence.  The only sound is the sound of rubber hitting pavement and the hum of the motor in Joe's truck.

   "My wife..." Joe begins to say and then pauses for a few more minutes.  "My wife was the only person who could relieve me of my demons.  She had a way of her, to comfort and bring a sense of peace... for thirty some years she did that every night."

   He looks at Joe with a questioning look.  Thirty years - would he have to face his demons for thirty years?  Fear creeps into his heart as Joe continues to speak.

   "When she passed away, I was lost.  I tried everything!  I even tried to sleep next to her grave each night - but nothing worked."

   He took into consideration the message of what Joe was saying.  He had no one.  Sure his parents were still alive, but what could they do?  He feels tears well up into his eyes and he tries to choke it back as he turns his head to look out the passenger window.

   The view of the night, a minor glimpse of trees or an illuminated sign pass by as they continue their journey.  Somehow Joe has calmed his fears and he feels slightly relaxed.  His eye lids begin to feel heavy.

   He wakes with a jolt.  For a brief moment he has forgotten where he is.  Then he see's Joe sitting in the truck beside him.  The truck is parked.  He looks out the windshield to see the bold colors of Old Glory as she rides the waves of a hidden gentle spring breeze.

  "Where are we?" he asks.

  "Home." states Joe.

  Home?  He looks at Joe with a questioning look.

  Joe sits there with his elbow hanging out the driver's side window looking straight ahead. 

  "I really hit rock bottom about a year ago..." tells Joe.  "Nothing would stop the demons.  I was even considering suicide, but I knew I couldn't go through with it on the account of my wife.  I couldn't let her down like that...

   Each night I would get in this here truck and drive until my eyelids became heavy.  Then I would pull off somewhere, generally a truck stop, and catch a few zzzs.  One night I ended up here.  I like to think my wife had something to do with it..."

   He began to look around.  He saw lots of lights that illuminated a variety of statues.  Off to his right he saw what looked like a globe.  Just behind Joe, he could see a building with a front porch that had a look that was quite welcoming.

   "That night saved my life." shares Joe.

   "How?" he asks.

   "Well I met someone here, who showed me around.  He lead me to a mound just over there..." replies Joe as he pointed.  "I had the best sleep I had had in nearly thirty years. Come, let me show you..."

   Joe got out of the truck.

   His guard was still slightly up.  But off to the east he could see the light of a clear blue morning just beginning to emerge. Day break, a time of peace for him.  He finds comfort in the light of the new day.

   He gets out of the truck and follows Joe.  A few minutes later they are standing in front of a statue.  The statue is of three soldiers being carried and protected by a woman soldier.

   "I'm sure you've been wondering about my demons?" asks Joe.

   "Yes, sir..."

   "Well son, I was in Vietnam and this here tribute is called Fragments.  The chimes you hear are from the back of her.  Those chimes contain the names of all of the 1,244 Wisconsin service men who will killed over there."  Joe pauses and reaches in his back pocket to pull out a hankie.  He proceeds to wipe his eyes and nose before he returns the hankie to it's rightful pocket.  "My best friend and I joined the Army together...I saw him get hit by a mortar and he died in my arms.  His name is some where back there... but I don't have the heart, nor courage to look. I feel if I find his name back there, then... well it's confirmation that my buddy is dead."

   He has a new found respect for Joe.  He now understands all the hell he and his friends put Joe through when they were young.  He looks at the statue and understands Joe's lack of courage, for he too had watched a buddy die in war.

   "Son, there are tributes here for every war... to remind those, who didn't serve, of the sacrifices we made for them so they may live in this great free nation of ours.  Those people don't know, nor do they understand those sacrifices...but we do.  Beneath each of those tributes, is a group of people who know... who know those sacrifices."

  Joe turns to him and puts his right hand on his left shoulder.  He leads him to a three foot wall.  There is enough light to see the vast forest land that spreads for miles in front of them.  He then points down the hill, below them.

  Just below the hill is an image that he has seen in the sands of Afghanistan.  It is a bootprint of a soldier's boot.  In the center of the bootprint are three statues, including the battlefield cross that he has seen too many times.

  "Son, that one is for you..." shares Joe.

  His legs begin to wobble and his knees begin to buckle.  Joe catches him under his arms before he goes down.  All at once his eyes begin to water and he is sobbing in the arms of Joe.

   "It's okay, son... let it all out..." gently says Joe.  "You're home..."

   For the first time since he came back from the war, he finally feels free to let it all go, as Joe is holding him.  He then feels the warmth of another hand on his shoulder. He looks up to see another man with a gentle smile on his face.

  "Welcome home and welcome to the Highground... a place to heal..."

   Some soldiers can leave the war behind, but those who can not - there is hope.  Hope if found in the heart of the beautiful landscape of Wisconsin.  Located just four miles west of Neillsville, is a 146 acre park called The Highground Veterans Memorial Park.

   The story of The Highground is one that belongs in the books on Wisconsin’s history.  It all started with a man named Tom Miller.

   “I really began this project many years ago, in 1964, while serving in the 2nd Battalion 7th Marines in California.  This is where I met my partner, Jack Swender.  Jack was from Kansas City, Kansas.” shares Tom Miller. 

   As the story goes, Tom and Jack were held up in a hut in the middle of a small market hamlet named Ky Phu, when they were attacked by the Vietcong’s 80th Battalion.

   “We were cut in to two groups with Jack and I being at the end of the first group.” shares Tom. “We didn’t have to communicate to each other the fact that we had to hold the town from being overran by the Vietcong as they were trying to move a 50 caliber machine-gun into the middle of it.  We held them off for I would say fifteen to twenty minutes before a recoilless rifle shell blew apart the rear wall of the house we were in.  I like to think and I do believe that our actions saved many Marines their lives that day, although it did cost Jack his.”

   As Tom held his friend’s battered body in his arms, he made a silent promise to never allow anyone to forget his friend’s sacrifice.

   “I believe it is needless to say that the day that Jack died in my arms was the saddest day in my life. One grows to love another when they are that close.” shares Tom.  “In late 1983, I again picked up the drive to produce our memorial.  The mood of America had changed and I had come in contact with a group of Vietnam veterans (Vietnam Veterans of America - Wisconsin delegation).  Through them, the outstanding network needed to produce this Project could be developed.  It wasn’t until late 1984 that people started to believe that I was really going to do something and then they slowly fell into place and supported the Project.”

   Before long, a community of volunteers, artists, sculptors along with the help of organizations and contributions created a place known now as The Highground, a grass-roots effort with no on-going federal or state funding.

   Utilizing the Marine's motto, "Leave no one behind," The Highground will pay tribute to those who served and gave their all in Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom with the newest addition of a tribute called The Bootprint (pictured below).  The new addition will be officially unveiled during a ceremony held on July 19 - 25, 2016.

   The Bootprint tribute recalls the variety of, military bootprints, impressions left in the sand; of the desert-like conditions of the Middle East conflicts.  Measuring eighty-five feet long and thirty-five feet wide, every aspect of this tribute was carefully thought out.  It's placement at The Highground allows visitors to observe the impression from a higher view.

   The toe of The Bootprint faces east as it welcomes the fresh light of a new day and the hope it can bring. Visitors enter through the arch to view three statues including "The Three Family," "Battle Gear," "The Thinker" and "The Battlefield Cross" (pictured on page 8).  Representing the treads of The Bootprint are various barricades, that were used as 'cover' during the wars.  The soles, or floor, of The Bootprint will eventually be lined with the names of Soldiers and or their families.

   "We would be honored to have as many Persian Gulf Veteran's, families of those serving and families of the Fallen sign their Soldiers name(s) on the floor of The Bootprint." shares Kirk Rodman, Volunteer General Manager of The Highground.  "All names will eventually be covered by Honor Stones but they will be forever written on 'The Wisconsin Persian Gulf Tribute' and we will know they are written by many Veterans and their families who have willingly served or supported the protection of our Freedom and Freedom of so many others."

   Operation Persian Gulf Welcome Home ceremony is a six day event.  The event will include the escort of "Wall of Remembrance," a recognition ceremony for each of the military operations, a dedication ceremony and live performances from various musical acts.  The heart of the event will be the recognition of the assistance that many Persian Gulf Veterans still require as they return to civilian life.  The Highground's Plaza will be filled with information and displays on PTSD awareness and counseling as well as employment, education, health care, housing assistance and many other staffed information tents for Veterans and families.  For more information about The Highground and this significant event please visit TheHighground.org

   He cried and cried in the arms of a man whom he never really knew, until now.  Joe just held him and cried with him.  What seemed like hours, were just mere minutes.  But in those minutes, two lives were changed - for the better.

   When there were no more tears left to cry, he got up.  He just looked at Joe, as only brothers in arms could.  Brothers who have walked through the valley of the shadow of death, confronted evil and are now left to deal with its aftermath willed with demons.  He grabs Joe and gives him a brotherly hug as he whispers "Thank you" in his ear.

   The other man smiles at the gesture and then says, "Welcome home son...let us help you..."

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The Highground Veterans Memorial Park Boot

May this tribute honor all branches of America's Military who served through multiple conflicts in the Middle East while marching forward in the Global War on Terrorism be a place of hope so that we do not walk past you but with you.  Let this site be an anchor for education and solace while securing in memory sacrifices made.  With hope and prayer, the Persian Gulf Tribute will provide a safe haven for all to reflect and to heal.

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