NEILLSVILLE—Thirty years ago The Highground Veterans Memorial Park dedicated its first tribute to veterans, specifically to veterans of the Vietnam War.
While the park opened in 1988, its journey began in 1964 with founder Tom Miller. A Marine veteran, Miller was profoundly impacted when his friend, Jack Swender, died in his arms on a battleground in Vietnam, said Theresa Hebert, The Highground events coordinator.
“Tom didn’t want Jack’s death and others that were killed in action to be in vain, so he knew that when he came back that he was going to do something,” Hebert said. “It took about 15 years because of the feeling in the country at the time and the lack of support for Vietnam veterans, even from other veterans, that Tom was able to get support to begin some kind of memorial.”
In 1984 the organization was formed and the land acquired, although it wasn’t yet called The Highground, Hebert said. It was called The Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project Incorporated, which is still the park’s proper name, but it quickly became known as The Highground.
Then on Sept. 18, 1988, after years of fundraising efforts, the park was officially dedicated and opened. Fragments, the Vietnam veterans tribute, was dedicated the same day the park itself was officially dedicated.
The Highground is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Other than a handful of full-time employees and a board of directors, The Highground is run by volunteers.
Dave Kemp, a Vietnam veteran from Eau Claire who served in the army from 1966-71, is one of those volunteers.
Kemp has been volunteering at the park for over 20 years and attended the dedication of the park 30 years ago.
Kemp’s status as a Vietnam veteran is what drew him to The Highground initially, he said. What the park does for veterans and others is what keeps him around.
“It has changed and grown over the years, but it’s a beautiful place,” he said. “I do enjoy meeting veterans, talking with them. I enjoy meeting visitors and being able to tell them about The Highground, educating them about The Highground. I also help out here with Fifth Grade Days, and I think it’s pretty cool that they come here and learn some history. I wish other communities would do that. I think it’s important to teach the young children about patriotism, about the flag. I think a lot of time that’s getting lost ... so we need to keep that going.”
The purpose of the park, Hebert said, is remembering and honoring those who have served.
“It is not a war memorial; we don’t glorify war, but we recognize the realities of war and we honor those that have served and the sacrifices,” Hebert said.
Hebert said The Highground continues to follow the original mission of “healing and education for veterans, their families and all who visit.” But now they focus on veterans of all eras, not just Vietnam veterans, and all locations, not just Wisconsin.
“Our purpose now is to continue on with honoring the veterans of all eras from whereever ... and having the actual solid tributes to them and then going that step further in recognizing that there are issues that some veterans and families have such as PTSD and recognizing the reality of veteran suicide and doing what we can with the funding that we can get, to have programs available,” she said.
To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the park and the midpoint of the Vietnam War, on The Highground will host exhibits, presentations and a “Yellow Ribbon Veterans Welcome Home” motorcade parade through Neillsville, bringing veterans to The Highground.
The celebration will kick off on Sept. 17 with the installation of yellow ribbons on the main roads and towns leading to The Highground throughout central Wisconsin, Hebert said. Organizers want any veteran who comes to the park for the Sept. 22 public recognition day to travel through a road lined with yellow ribbons.
Hebert said the yellow ribbon idea began as just a parade through Neillsville and as a way to commemorate the 30th year and the Vietnam veterans. However, it expanded once Clark County Economic Development and Tourism got involved and encouraged other towns and cities to participate.
“Some Vietnam veterans come here to The Highground ... and they’ll say this is the first time even now that they’ve been told welcome home,” she said. “(Now) it’s really expanded to encompass central Wisconsin and beyond taking part in this yellow ribbon campaign.”
On Sept. 21 and 22, exhibits and presentations will be open at The Highground, including Steve Conto’s “Final Bridge” project where he locates and cares for the gravesites of Wisconsin Vietnam KIAs at home and overseas, Hebert said. Conto will also have his Wisconsin Vietnam Memorial Wall, which lists the names of the Wisconsin KIAs, on exhibit.
Also on display will be Wisconsin Public Television’s “A Face for Every Name” Vietnam KIA display/memorial at the Highground’s Learning Center. Bryce Kelley, who came up with the idea, will give a presentation on the history of the exhibit.
Sept. 22 will begin with the yellow ribbon parade from 11 a.m. to noon at the Clark County Fairgrounds and moving west on Hwy. 10 to the Highground.
Veterans of all eras will be involved in the parade, Hebert said, not just Vietnam veterans as it was initially centered on.
“As the weeks went by, it just grew to include everything up to current day, because it really tells the story of the 30 years,” she said. “It’s not just the Vietnam tribute anymore, that’s our center, but we’ve grown to include everything ... The day itself mirrors the last 30 years and how (the park) started with Vietnam and it’s grown to include everything. That’s a good feeling, and it tells the story of the path The Highground has taken.”
Following the parade will be a ceremony commemorating the 30 years of The Highground.
Hebert said it will include a number of color guards and speakers Don Quicker, a Vietnam veteran and a founding and current member of The Highground Board of Directors; Jake Leinenkugel, the leader of the Creating Options for Veterans’ Expedited Recovery Commission; Skip Klabon, a Vietnam veteran, long-time Highground volunteer and co-leader of the Highground Veterans Retreats program; and John Miller, a poet from Brule.
Following the ceremony will be food, music and fireworks. Displays and exhibits will be on display, including a static UH-1H Huey helicopter.
The Promise Quartet will play music from 5-6 p.m. and Red Higgins and Freedom Train will perform from 6-8 p.m. The fireworks will be set off at dark.