Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall coming to Green Cove Springs
GREEN COVE SPRINGS – When a Green Cove Springs Junior High student touched the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall in Washington for the first time last year, he was so moved that he said he wanted all of his classmates to have the same experience.
The student, who has since moved out of state, had a chance to visit the memorial while his family was in the area attending his grandfather’s funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. The student, whose name is being withheld, wanted to visit the memorial to pay homage to his grandfather’s Vietnam comrades who never made it back from the war. He came back to his school and discussed the experience with his civics teacher, Michael Taft.
"He said after standing at that wall, he felt something that was ‘magical and holy’," said Taft who also serves as the school’s Junior Beta Club sponsor. "He said he just wished everybody could go up there and see it."
After sitting down with Taft and talking about his experience, the discussion that began as a Beta Club service project idea, grew into a schoolwide project – why not bring one of four U.S. moving Vietnam Memorial walls to the school’s campus in 2013. Taft said he ran the idea by the school principal and gauged support among other Beta Club members and began putting together a plan to make one student’s wish come true. May 9 through 14, a three-fifth’s scale replica of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial Wall will travel to Green Cove Springs Junior High.
"I tell you, this has been one of the biggest undertakings of my life," Taft said. "It’s going to all be worth it in the end here."
Taft said, if history repeats itself, what was once an illusory American war, will now become very real for the current generation of students who attend the Green Cove Springs school.
"One, for the educational experience for the kids, and two, I know from just this past year, that Vietnam veterans are dying faster than World War II veterans…and their stories are going to be powerful for the kids."
The school will not charge an admission fee for area residents to visit the wall. In total, they’re still trying to raise the $12,000 needed to cover all of the expenses for the exhibit. Meanwhile, Taft’s fundraising efforts have been paying off. The Sunrise Rotary Club of Orange Park has donated $500 as has the Clay County Cruzers car club, while the Sleep Inn on Fleming Island has jumped on board as a sponsor where it will donate a number of motel rooms to the event’s work crew.
"We felt it was a good and worthy event," said motel General Manager Susan Soltys. "We are very supportive of our military both past and present. I think our Vietnam vets got a raw deal when they came home and some suffered terribly."
A local chapter of the Black Creek Chapter of ABATE Florida also held a bike run last weekend to raise money for the exhibit. Run coordinator Herb Hildebrand said the motorcycle club raised "about a $1,000" for the Beta Club. Taft has also been in discussion with the Branan Field Home Depot store to donate lumber and other supplies needed to help build a platform on which the granite memorial structure will be erected from May 9 through 14. Plans call for setting up the display on the Green Cove Springs Junior High football field so the public can come view the names and pay homage to the fallen.
"Overwhelming is probably the easiest way to describe it," said Greg Welsh who serves as wall manager for the Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard County, the Cocoa, Fla. nonprofit that has taken the memorial as far as Eagle River, Wisc., El Campo, Texas, and Tempe, Ariz. Welsh – himself an Air Force Vietnam veteran – will manage the wall on 14 national visits this year.
"It’s very emotional for a lot of people to see it. It’s not only emotional for the Vietnam veteran, it could be emotional for a grandchild who sees their family name on the wall for the first time. It’s intense for a lot of people."
And as fate, or magical and holy moments, would have it, bringing the wall to the junior high helps Taft and the school meet some of the requirements of the new civics curriculum that went into effect this year. Taft said by having the school’s 500 seventh graders participate in the project, they will meet a new state requirement for taking part in a community service project.
"Mr. Taft has worked tirelessly behind the scenes to help bring this event to [our school]. Probably every other conversation I have with him is being updated on some of the latest logistical, technical, or financial challenges we’re facing, and how he and the kids intend to meet them. There has already been a phenomenal amount of thinking, planning, and preparation which has gone into making this idea a reality," said school Principal Jeff Umbaugh.
As scheduled, opening day plans for the exhibit involve visits from both Gov. Rick Scott and Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, as well as a military flyover during opening ceremonies, Taft said. Motorcycle clubs have also signed on to escort the exhibit to the stadium, something Taft wants the students to be able to stand on the roadsides and witness the morning of May 9 at 10 a.m.
"I want them to see the fruits of their labor," Taft said.
PHOTO COURTESY OF WELSH PHOTOGRAPHY
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The Traveling Memorial Wall, a scaled version of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., stands six feet tall at the center and covers almost 300 feet from end to end.
The Traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall will come to the Green Cove Springs Junior High football field in May. Members of the Clay County Cruzers car club present a $500 check toGreenCoveSpringsJuniorHighPrincipalJeffUmbaugh, center,andcivicsteacher Michael Taft, right. Also shown are,from left to right,Cruzers’ President Norb Logsdon, Vice President Gene Hawthorne and second from right, Cruzers member Tommy Marcy.