PROJECT HIGHLIGHT: West Point's American Veterans Park
By BRADY JONES
The three granite spires reach up like arms outstretched in veneration.
An American flag rises in the middle, watching over the American Veterans Park paved with that familiar, monumental gray concrete. A massive cross spreads across the whole foundation.
New plants are beginning to stretch their roots behind the smaller flags that line the back and sides of this place of reverence.
Even though the scene would fit in well at the National Mall, this military monument isn't in Washington, D.C.
It's in West Point.
Not the famed military academy in New York, either, but a Nebraska town of around 3,300 people almost 60 miles northwest of Omaha.
“We wanted our park to be very different – unique to any of the other veterans parks,” said Lisa Hunke, a member of the park’s 13-person planning committee and the one who came up with the design concept.
The group’s mission is straightforward: “To honor God, country, veterans and their families.”
But unlike other memorials and parks, West Point’s American Veterans Park is meant for the whole military, including their families and the role faith has played in many of their lives.
“We wanted to recognize all American veterans,” Hunke said. “We didn’t want to focus just on a particular conflict or particular war or divide it up like that. We wanted to recognize everyone that had served, whether in full-time military or guard or reserves. We also wanted to recognize those who had served both during wartime and peacetime because everybody has made a sacrifice.”
Committee co-chairman Ken Hanel highlighted that broader significance.
“I wanted it to honor sacrifice because, in my opinion, sacrifice without remembrance is meaningless. And this park is going to bring meaning to sacrifice.”
A BETTER IDEA
Phil Burns can look out his window at the F&M Bank and see the Stars and Stripes flying high over those granite pillars.
A couple of years ago, a large, run-down rental house sat in that lot, which the bank had purchased.
“I kept thinking there’s got to be a better use for it,” Burns said.
He’s always had a soft spot in his heart for these kinds of things and has visited several memorials throughout the state. And while there are many decent parks and places out there, he said he thought maybe that dilapidated lot could be turned into something really special.
“West Point is a wonderful community. For a small town, we do some pretty spectacular things, and we do them right.”
So Burns reached out to other community members with his proposition: The bank would donate the land if the community could come up with something that West Point and Cuming County could be proud of.
“I think they’re spot on with that,” he said.
FOR ALL TIME
When the ancient Greeks and Romans built their monuments and temples, they didn’t turn to wood. They used concrete and stone, and there’s a reason a lot of their works are still around thousands of years later.
Concrete lasts. A long time.
So when the committee was planning the park, things like the toughness and lower costs of concrete factored into their decisions.
“First and foremost we wanted to go maintenance free – within budget,” Hanel said. “We have a very reliable concrete supplier here in town, Gerhold Concrete. I’ve worked with them for years, and we wanted to do business in town.”
And Gerhold’s Bob Anderson was more than happy to be a part of the park.
The manager for the West Point plant, Anderson said they placed 426 yards of concrete for the job.
“I was proud to be involved with this project as my father, son, and me are all veterans,” he said.
Generations were also on the minds of committee members, many with sons and daughters and other family in the military, too. They were very deliberate in wanting something that would last beyond themselves and be a place of honor – but not a burden – to the many who would come after.
“It's gonna outlive me,” Hanel said. “We're hoping that future generations don't inherit a maintenance problem.”
Concrete certainly fits the bill and should prove the right answer to those concerns.
ACCORDING TO PLAN
The official ribbon-cutting is planned for Veterans’ Day later this fall, but you wouldn’t be the first person to drive by and think it was done already.
That was by design.
“I have people from Coleridge, Neb., and places like that who think it’s done,” Hanel said. “It’s like, no, this is phase one.... We could have a ceremony here now if we wanted to, and that was the idea.”
The committee wanted things done in three parts, with a finished look at the end of each part.
“You never know when you sit down to start a project,” said Rick Wimer, a fellow co-chairman of the committee. “You don’t want it to look like it’s always under construction.”
All of the big stuff was done in the first phase, including the foundation, electrical and lighting, sprinklers, and drainage.
That was finished before the cold set in last winter. Then the group transitioned into the second phase, which included things that can be made indoors – like the granite tables and benches – when the weather was less than wonderful.
Once those are placed, the statues – which will represent all of the aspects of their mission – and flag memorials will be installed during the last phase later this year.
Anyone can honor any American serviceman or servicewoman who served in any branch for any length of time, in wartime or peacetime, by purchasing memorial tiles that will be displayed around the park.
When it’s all done, it will be full of symbolism both subtle and large-scale (the giant cross in the concrete foundation can be seen from planes in the air).
“We've been very intentional that every element of the park would point back to that mission in some shape or fashion,” Hunke said.
Of course a project like this becomes deeply personal for all involved.
Hunke’s husband, Bernie, served for 22 years in the Air Force as a C-130 loadmaster. The family spent years stationed in Arkansas, North Carolina, Germany, and Japan before moving back to West Point, Bernie’s hometown. Since retirement, he has remained active with the VFW and American Legion and is one of three co-chairs of the planning committee.
Hanel is an Army veteran who served more than two years in northern Germany working with Pershing Nuclear during the Cold War. He’s been a member of the Legion for 39 years and serves on the Cuming County Veterans Service Board.
Wimer served three years of active duty in the Marines and another 10 years in reserve. Two of his sons also served in the Marines, and his daughter is following in those footsteps later this year. He’s been an active member with the Legion for more than three decades, and has helped with 10 honor flights that take veterans to visit Washington, D.C.
But beyond their own connections, they’re vessels of a much larger thing you can’t really see or explain, you can only feel.
Walking along the streets of West Point, you get a real sense of pride from the people passing by. But if you need evidence, look no further than the American Veterans Park, which was able to meet most of its funding goals while there were three other major community projects going on at the same time. And Hunke said none of those projects have suffered from the fundraising of the others.
“Within a year we were able to raise 75 percent of the funds that we needed for this park. So the community has been just amazing – amazing the way the support has come,” she said. “I didn’t grow up here, so it always amazes me to come to a small community like this and see how everyone binds together when there’s something important going on.”
And that “community” has expanded beyond West Point and Cuming County. It’s expanded beyond Nebraska, actually.
In keeping with their goal that this place will honor all American veterans, the group has a map on their Facebook page tracking donations from other states. They’re hoping to have all 50 states represented.
So far, there are only 15 states left.
And as the map fills in, and more details are installed, members of the American Veterans Park committee and West Point residents should swell with pride knowing they’ve created something special.
“When we raised the flag for the first time... it just took my breath away,” said Adeline Hanel, secretary of the committee. “I can't put into words the feeling I had. I can still see it. I can still feel it. ... I can just imagine when it's completed how I'll feel.”