In June 2013, a company in Texas, “American Veterans Traveling Tribute,” sent emails to many VFWs and American Legion posts across the country that they wished to sell and permanently place their Traveling Vietnam Wall. Members of American Legion Post 110 in Port Charlotte began to discuss the effort. On June 21, Jerry Baumgartner sent the email to MajGen Richard “Dick” Carr, USAF, ret. Carr immediately sent an email to Bill Albers, Punta Gorda Mayor and asked about building a Vietnam Wall in Punta Gorda. In less than 2 hours, emails returned from the Mayor and Dennis Murphy, Director of Growth Management both expressing the strongest support for the project. These were followed in a day from Howard Kunik, City Manager, with the same expression of support.
Informal discussions were common until Dave Donohew, the County Veterans’ Services Officer, called all interested in the subject to a meeting in his conference room on September 5, 2013. Thirty people attended. Dick Carr was nominated to chair the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida Committee. Stacy Jones accepted the Co-Chair position; Kim Lovejoy, Secretary position; and Kathie Carter, Treasurer position.
The following committees and chairs were established: Fundraising-chair Bruce Olmsted, Media-chair Dave Donohew, Location-chair Peter Shanks and Finance-chair Bill Martin. After the meeting, Tom Cavanaugh became the City Council Rep and Stephen R. Deutsch became the Charlotte County Rep.
The Committee’s October 8, 2013 meeting was briefed by a man from Melbourne who was a key player in buying a traveling wall there. This wall had been displayed in Punta Gorda in 2009 and with an estimated attendance of nearly 100,000, he said it was the most successful showing ever for that wall. This meeting resulted in questioning the use of a traveling wall due to, salt air corrosion, fade due to sun, polish every year, rinse each week and other maintenance requirements. Plastic black Lexan and other materials were discussed. We decided to investigate using granite despite the increased cost. At this point, Rick Tuss, Managing Partner, Charlotte Memorial Funeral Home and Cemetery, stepped up to take on the effort of researching everything about using granite. The city announced the staff was eager to help but no money would be given to us for the Wall.
Subsequent meetings tackled the numerous problems and tough decisions to be made to progress. One interesting contact was the “West Wall” in Pensacola. The city gave them the land so the upkeep falls squarely on the Non-Profit Corporation. Theirs cost $1.2 million in 1992, they estimated ours at $3 million. They have a ceremony the Sunday before Memorial Day attended by 3-5,000 motorcyclists.
The committee chose our purpose:
“The Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida will provide a permanent education reminder to the living and generations to come; of the sacrifices made all who served in Vietnam; especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice and whose names will never be forgotten”
A most important vote was held on October 18, 2013. The county wanted the Wall placed in North Regional Park, off US 41 near the northern boundary of Charlotte County. However, the location near the center of Punta Gorda in part of Laishley Park was overwhelmingly approved. After this, the county tasked Veteran Services Officer Donohew to design and fund an “All Veterans Park” for the county. In November, Senator Bill Nelson heard of our effort to build a replica Wall in Punta Gorda and offered his help.
2014 was spent researching dozens of options and solving dozens more problems. Major decisions such as: size, 50% or 60% of the Wall in DC; drainage; landscaping; ownership; maintenance, engraving or etching the names and more. One initiative by several members was to add a Huey helicopter to the vicinity of the Wall. Despite supporting this effort, in December 2014, the Chairman made a decision to table this initiative so as to not dilute our work pending the wall completion and having funds left over to be able to add the Huey.
Fundraising was led by veterans as well as by Dr. David Klein and Dr. Mark Asperilla. One especially outstanding fundraiser was at Dr. Asperilla’s home with live music and keynote speaker, Wayne Smith. Wayne, as a USAF Captain and F-4 fighter pilot, was shot down in North Vietnam and spent 1,884 days in captivity. He showed his cup and sandal from his stay in the “Hanoi Hilton.” He also talked of making a good friend, John McCain, whose cell was back-to-back with his in the “Hilton."
Ongoing design of the support structure and other factors to keep the heavy granite panels in place was given a huge boost when city engineer, Mark Gering, was able to get the blueprints from the Wall in DC on December 12, 2014. Then on 12/23/2014, just prior to Christmas, Gering placed stakes in the park area to mark where the wall would go. A Godsend was when Wayne Goff, a well-known general contractor in the area volunteered to be the general contractor for the Vietnam Wall construction.
With optimism on the rise in 2015, plans were being made to dedicate our new wall by Veterans Day. But we were still doing research and bidding with 4 granite suppliers and 3 granite engravers.
Then a problem of ongoing care of the Vietnam Wall was raised by Commissioner Constance. As a result, a non-profit organization, The Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida, Inc., (501(c)(3) corporation) was formed on June 30, 2015 with Dick Carr as President and Bill Akins as Vice President. Other officers and directors were: Colleen Stapleton, Kathy Carter, Stacy Jones, Bill Martin, Michael Raymond, Henry Reposa and Rex Koch. This corporation is responsible for the perpetual care and maintenance of the Vietnam Wall. More challenges during the summer made the committee change dedication focus to March 30, 2016.
The relationship of the Wall Corporation and the City of Punta Gorda was solidified by Howard Kunik, City Manager, on August 7, 2015:
“Based on what I know, the city will be responsible for maintenance of all grounds – after all it is a city park. If the wall or names on the wall need refurbishing, I assume the 501c3 will provide funding for that component. If the 501c3 also has funding for replacement of landscaping that would be helpful but not the priority of those funds. The priority should be wall issues and marketing with the assistance of the TDC.”
A very contentious issue concerning being able to take “rubbings” of the names on the wall (etching vs. engraving) was finally resolved when Star Granite of Elberton, GA announced in September 2015, that they could indeed engrave letters that were the small size needed for our Vietnam Wall.
November 2015 was a very busy month. Bids were finalized, lingering problems were solved and, on November 11, Veterans Day we had the Ground Breaking. Thousands were in attendance as Governor Rick Scott and Congressman Tom Rooney, with state, county and city dignitaries spoke. The “Ground Breaking” was done with “Entrenching Tools”, a small military folding shovel.
Actual construction began on January 4, 2016. The next five months saw underground support activity finished along with the sturdy concrete wall that would support the thick engraved granite panels. June 20, 2016 was an exciting day as a large flatbed trailer arrived at the site at 2:30 pm! This truck and its load had received an escort by state, county and local police cruisers all the way from the Florida state line!
Wayne Goff passed away in July 2016. Construction was complete and we had a somber “soft” opening on September 3. Volunteers led hundreds of visitors to find names on the wall and explain Vietnam War history. Even we volunteers learned that day that there are not just 58,300 + names on that black granite wall, but there are really 58,300 + stories represented on the wall. A sobering experience.
A huge ceremony marked the dedication of the Wall on November 5, 2016. There were Warbird flyovers, Rolling Thunder motorcycles, bands, many military units and dignitary speeches with thousands in attendance once again.
Postscript: In 2017, the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida was honored as the best public-private project under $3.5 million in the state of Florida, 2016. Wayne Goff was honored as the best contractor in the state of Florida for 2016. General Carr and Mark Gering traveled to Tallahassee to receive these awards at a banquet, then present them to the city and the Goff family.
Some 25 or so years before the completion of the Wall, well-meaning Kiwanis members informally established a Kiwanis Veterans Garden. Unfortunately, the years had not been kind to the engraved bricks and the bronze plaques mounted on brick pedestals. The Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida board set about making a plan to renovate the rest of the park.
In May 2017 the City Council named the small area of Laishley Park as Veterans Park. With the vast increase in visitors came a need for parking, a restroom (nearest one is a quarter of a mile) and a general redesign of the park. Two meetings with the city on needs were fruitless so the board set about fundraising to support additions. In May 2018, eighteen more names were engraved on the Wall. From time to time the DOD determines that individuals meet their criteria and can be added to the wall.
A parking lot, totally funded with donations was completed on East Retta Esplanade in June of 2019. The City Council approved and mostly funded a $540,000 renovation of Veterans Park. Various sections of the park were added and named: Military Service Shield Compass, Donor Plaza, Contemplative Area and Purple Heart. On the Nesbit Street side, the Mural Wall would later contain a painting depicting the history of the Punta Gorda airfield. It is now completed. At the east end of the wall is the Ceremonial Plaza that contains the flags of the Armed Services.
This Phase 2 renovation of the park began in October 2019. The Ribbon Cutting ceremony by the Punta Gorda Chamber of Commerce saw the largest attendance of any ribbon cutting by the Chamber!
During the renovation, the Vietnam Wall of Southwest Florida board removed the 29 bronze plaques from their pedestals and they were sent to a bronze foundry in Georgia to be refinished. These plaques were later placed along the “Walk of Honor”.
There were also over 1,000 existing bricks removed and taken to the city yard to be entered into a database. This was done by volunteers of many different organizations. The bricks were separated into military branches of service and restored as needed. The provided areas in front of the mural wall and Purple Heart monument were designed for installation of the bricks and space for future growth. With the help of many volunteers, the bricks were then placed in front of the Mural Wall by branch of service or in front of the Purple Heart monument.
HONOR YOUR LOVED ONES BY PURCHASING A BRICK OR PAVER.