Aug 31 2020
Frank Ross | The Villages Daily Sun
Excitement is building for Chairman Doug Gardner and members of the Florida National Cemetery’s Joint Veterans Support Committee’s monument committee, as their plans and funding come together for the first monument in the proposed Freedom Memorial Plaza. The Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell is the second-most active veterans’ cemetery in the nation with an average 7,000 burials each year. The proposed plaza is to be located near the cemetery’s entrance where it adjoins the Withlacoochee State Forest, just off Interstate 75. The concept of creating a Freedom Memorial Plaza to honor veterans of all wars from the Revolutionary War through today’s enduring conflicts is an idea that’s been driving Villages veterans for some time. Efforts began in earnest when the Freedom Memorial project was first introduced in August 2019.
Gardner, of the Village of Gilchrist, said the JVCS Monument Committee’s initial list of priorities for the proposed 14 monuments called for the main sculpture featuring a full-honors funeral to be placed first.
It would’ve been followed by the Defenders of Freedom Wall, then the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument. However, the full-honors funeral centerpiece is the most expensive element of the plaza and the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument already has been approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs for other national cemeteries, so it can be installed much sooner.
“We have submitted plans for the first three monuments, and since the Gold Star Families monument has already been installed in several national cemeteries, we have a verbal assurance that it will be approved as is,” Gardner said. “We are very close to having the funding for this part of the Freedom Plaza, and we’re anxious to get started.”
A $20,000 donation from the Disabled American Veterans Orange Blossom Gardens Chapter 150 got the project off the ground, and fundraising for the estimated $10 million project had been in full swing until COVID-19 put the skids to planned events.
The initial DAV donation provided funding for the architectural plans that are required for approval by Veterans Affairs. The drawings have been submitted to the VA for approval, and the committee is looking at dates for the ground-breaking ceremony for the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument.
The idea for the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument was born of the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. The initial monument was set in Williams’ home state of West Virginia, then the foundation decided to take it to the national level and place a Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in as many communities as possible in all 50 states.
The monument is made of beautiful black granite. On one side are inscribed the words: Gold Star Families Memorial Monument, a tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrifice a Loved One for our Freedom.
Williams, 97, is expected to be present for the memorial dedication. According to his citation, he received the Medal of Honor for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” and “valiant devotion to duty and service above self” as he enabled his company to reach its objective during World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima, while serving with the 21st Marines, 3rd Marine Division.
His foundation’s mission is to honor, recognize and serve Gold Star Families. It also provides Living Legacy scholarships to eligible Gold Star Children.
Since the JVSC monument committee moved it to the head of the line, it has committee members looking for a ceremonial silver shovel for the ground-breaking ceremony for the monument that could be imminent.
“We’re very optimistic that we’ll be able to set a date for the ground-breaking before Veterans Day,” Gardner said. “We are talking with a local supplier about donating the concrete footer and that looks like it’s going to happen.”
However, the pace the committee set for raising money for the plaza has been dramatically affected.
“We’ve just hit a wall with our fundraising event cancellations for COVID-19, and it has impacted all of the charitable efforts in The Villages,” Gardner said.
The committee’s new fundraising chairman, Maj. Gen. Dick Colt, said they would usually look to local companies and clubs for donations.
“We can’t have our golf tournament and some of the close, personal interaction-type events, so we’re going to be looking at foundations to get the Gold Star Monument completed,” Colt said from his home in the Village of Hemingway. “It’s the least costly of the three designs we’re looking to do first.”
Felix Ramirez, of Mascotte, is chairman of the Gold Star Memorial committee. As a Gold Star father, he has a special interest in seeing the memorial dedicated.
When the monument is in place, Ramirez will see it when he visits his son’s grave at the Florida National Cemetery. His son, Army Sgt. Eric Ulysses Ramirez, was killed in 2004 while serving in Iraq.
“We’re very happy and humbled that our son, and the men and women who have given their lives for our country, will be recognized at the Florida National Cemetery with our Gold Star Families Memorial Monument in our new Freedom Memorial Plaza,” Felix said. “I am very pleased that the people of this community are so supportive of our efforts to honor these fallen heroes.”
Colt said the focus will be on larger foundations for funding as an alternative to special events. They’re looking to attract individual donations through the internet.
“We’re not looking for a lot of big donations, but hopefully people will realize how important it is to honor our veterans, where they’re being buried, where their comrades sleep,” Colt said. “It’s going to be a tough road, but that’s OK. Almost everyone on the committee is a (combat) veteran, and we’ve all had the hard days and tough nights. We’ll be able to push through this. With a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, we’ll be successful.”
To make a contribution to this project, visit the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation website at https://hwwmohf.kindful.com/?campaign=1047018.