The following article was published in 1992 in the first edition of “The Highground” Magazine.
Much Toil, Much Gain
As space allows in future issues, we plan to document the history of The Highground memorial. Here, a founding member and former executive director gives an overview of the decade of inspiration, perspiration, and dedication that has brought the memorial into being. By: Steve Piotrowski
In the early 1980s two events of importance to Vietnam Veterans influenced the formation of The Highground, the beginnings of the Vietnam Veterans organizations and the effort to build the National Vietnam Memorial. In 1982, the Wall in Washington was dedicated, an event attended by many Wisconsin Veterans and their families. At the same time, Vietnam Veterans organizations were forming chapters in various parts of the state.
In early 1983 several Vietnam Veterans started discussing how deeply affected we were by the trip to the Wall. We soon came to understand the significance of the Wall to the healing we were seeking. In the course of discussing the experience, we realized that there were large numbers of Wisconsin Veterans who would never have the opportunity to visit the Wall. We started to think about what we could do to bring some part of the experience and healing we felt to our fellow Veterans in Wisconsin.
Tom Miller, a former Marine grunt, brought together a group of Vietnam Veterans in 1984. In November of that year we formally incorporated the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project, Inc. (WVVMP). The Corporation was dedicated to building a memorial to those Wisconsin residents who served in Vietnam. The purpose was to remember and honor the service and sacrifice of those who served, without glorifying the war itself. The feeling of those involved with the project from the beginning was that the questions about the politics and correctness of the war were entirely separate from the service rendered to the country by those who fought and died there.
In the early period, several guidelines to what we wanted to accomplish were established. They included a site that would be at least 35 acres; a memorial that would honor the people who served, but emphasize the sacrifice of that service; a place that would encourage learning and reflection; and a place that would help in promoting understanding and healing for all who would visit.
WVVMP announced a nationwide competition for designs for the memorial. The key factors involved in the design were those listed above, and to include the names of those who died in Vietnam from Wisconsin, with the proviso that the memorial should not resemble a tombstone. We wanted a tribute to those living, with a remembrance of those from Wisconsin who had made the ultimate sacrifice. The design contest was open to anyone who had served in the U.S. or Allied military during the Vietnam era.
While the design contest was being promoted, WVVMP began the process of finding a site for the memorial. It was decided that besides being at least 35 acres, it had to be centrally located in the state to allow access to the entire state, and should be located outside of a major metropolitan area so as to avoid becoming just one more things to see in the city. Letters and notices were sent to cities and counties throughout the state asking about the availability of land meeting our needs.
Early on, the search for a site became concentrated in Adams County. There were several beautiful places available, it was, centrally located, and there was tremendous support for our locating there. We had narrowed the list down to ten possibilities, and announced that we would be making a decision soon. It was at that time that we were approached by the people of Clark County. WVVMP’s site selection committee visited the ten finalists for the site, and narrowed it to three. One was in Adams County near Roch a Cri State Park, one was near Medford, and one was the late entry near Neillsville.
The three finalists were allowed to make presentations to the Board of Directors, who were tasked with making the final decision. It was during the presentations that the “magic” that is The Highground became first apparent. The presentations were all well done and positive, but the Neillsville site just called out to the board. In the end, the site where The Highground exists was chosen by an overwhelming vote.
Shortly after announcing the selection of the site, the selection of the memorial itself became the task. WVVMP assembled a panel of experts in various disciplines to examine the 100-plus entries we had received and narrow them down to 10 for the board to choose from. The panel did its work, and presented them to the board in no particular order without any indication as to whom or where they came from. The board spent a long time considering the various proposals, and by a relatively slim margin chose the design submitted by Robert Kanyusik of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.
The magic of The Highground was apparent that day. In spite of the fact that many of the finalists were from outside the state, and the fact that many of the Board members had other first choices, a Wisconsin artist’s design was chosen. It was also the morning of that meeting that one of the Board members was presented as a birthday present, a drawing of the Wall by Mr. Kanyusik. It is important to understand that the drawings submitted by Mr. Kanyusik did not do justice to the concept he had for the memorial as it ultimately appeared.
Again, The Highground worked its magic when the design began to be built. WVVMP perceived the design to focus on the statue, and overlook the valley below, but as the initial work of bringing the plaza area to grade, the true beauty of the site came out. In raising the point of the plaza 20 feet to bring it level, suddenly, instead of looking into the trees, you looked over them at a vista incredible no matter how many times you view it.
The Veterans groups from Clark County overcame their natural rivalries and raised several thousand dollars to furnish the flag pole that is so visible on the site. Tom Miller, who had not riden a bicycle in 20 years, rode over 25 days around the state, raising funds and spreading the word. Almost without the Board noticing it, the WVVMP changed to The Highground. The place did not have a name, except to be called the memorial site, and we used the term “The Highground” on our newsletter to symbolize the high motive we had, and the safety of “the high ground” in military terms. The place that is so special to us all came to be called The Highground by almost everyone who visited it. We soon caved in to the call of the land and officially named the park The Highground Veterans Memorial Park.
By 1988, we had raised several hundred thousand dollars in donations and in-kind contributions, but had been unable to get over the hump of the big cash infusion to do the final construction of the site. Several members of the Wisconsin Legislature approached us, as did the Korean vets, with an offer of matching funds for construction of the memorial plaza. With that money, we were able to contract for the speedy construction of the plaza in time for the dedication on September 18, 1988.
The Board was nervous and excited as the weekend approached. The Highground was more beautiful than we could have imagined, but we really did not know many would show up for the dedication. The night before, and the early morning were rainy, and there really weren’t a lot of people around. In the morning, it rained lightly as the names of the 1,135 from Wisconsin who had died in Vietnam were read. When the reading ended, the sky cleared, and the day turned hot and muggy. We were overwhelmed when over 10,000 people showed up for the dedication that afternoon.
The ceremonies that day were too long. We had too many people to thank, and too much to say to make it short. The people who came for the dedication didn’t seem to think so, because they all stayed through the entire program. To unveil the statue, we had asked the Lac Courte Oreilles Soldiers’ Drum to assist, and as they began to sing and the statue was unveiled, alone cloud in the sky opened up, and as they so beautifully pointed out, “. . . . the Grandfathers came to bless The Highground with their tears.” Many others blessed The Highground with their tears that day and many days since.
The WVVMP has always held one principle above all others: The purpose of the project is to bring healing, hope, and peace to those who visit. The effort is always to honor those who sacrifice for the greater good of the country, and not to glorify the evil that is war. The reason we exist is to try in some small way to heal the wounds that divide us from each other: divisions that may be between Veterans and protester, or father and son, or whatever other divisions that may exist.
To work on the project has been at the same time absolutely the most painful thing in my life. It has forced me to deal with my own personal demons; that is good, but always hard. The really painful part has been the hundreds of times that the project has been criticized by people who thought they knew the truth, and didn’t have a clue.
The wonderful people who have told us how much The Highground has helped them heal —-they keep me working. The “know-it- alls” who tell me that we are crooks—-they make me want to quit. The Board members of the project have invested hundreds of hours of their time, and thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to make the project work, and people still think that we are taking money for our own personal gain. We get criticized by people who don’t like The Highground being for other than Vietnam Veterans; we get criticized because we concentrate too much on Vietnam Veterans; we get criticized because we don’t have the trees planted in the plaza, we get criticized because we are going to ruin the plaza by planting trees; we get criticized because we haven’t raised enough money, we get criticized because we ask for money too often; we get criticized for not mowing the side hills on the plaza, we get criticized because we don’t keep the area natural enough.
The Board of the WVVMP accepts the criticism we receive in the spirit of what is best for The Highground. We have often modified what we were thinking about doing because of what we were told. The Board knows that we can not please everyone in every way, so we try to rise above the squabbles and do what is best for the project. We will continue to do so; but remember, almost everything that has been accomplished has been accomplished because of the sacrifice of the people who wanted to see it built. The small contributions from thousands have made. The Highground what you see today. The criticisms of those who talk before they learn has almost destroyed the work of thousands many times, and yet we have overcome.
The Highground needs your help to continue. We need Veterans who are willing to serve on the Board to help us to continue to grow. We need volunteers of all sorts to work on projects for The Highground. We need money to support our efforts. We need talents of all sorts to reach out to others. We can only promise you that the experience will be rewarding, frustrating, healing, and educational for you. You will not get rich in a monetary sense, but your life will be all the richer for working with The Highground.