Community celebrates dedication of Stafford Armed Services Memorial
By AMANDA VICINANZO | The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. | Published: July 17, 2017
STAFFORD, Va. (Tribune News Services) — When Gary D. Nichols returned from the Vietnam War, no one ever stopped him to thank him for his service. He received no shows of appreciation or invitations to veteran recognition events. Instead, he was greeted by indifference.
That all changed on Saturday morning when Nichols stood under the hot sun admiring the commemorative brick with his name on it that lined the walkway of the newly dedicated Stafford Armed Services Memorial behind the Stafford courthouse.
Hundreds of people braved the heat and humidity to attend the ceremony formally dedicating the memorial, which honors all those who have served or are serving in the military and their families. It includes a large black granite marker representing each major American war, from the Revolutionary War to the Global War on Terror.
Delivering remarks at the ceremony, Virginia Secretary of Veterans and Defense Affairs John Harvey said the thousands of men and women who fought in each one of these wars didn’t choose where they were going. They showed up, and offered their lives as a blank check to their country — and some were called to cash in those checks.
“You contributed to the freedoms we have enjoyed since 1776, no matter which war you served in,” Harvey said.
Harvey’s words resonated with the veterans in attendance, including more than 20 World War II veterans. Of the more than 16 million Americans who fought in World War II, only about 500,000 are estimated to still be alive.
Nichols said it was an honor to attend the ceremony alongside so many veterans, many of whom continued to sacrifice long after leaving the battlefield behind them.
Over the years, Nichols has seen the attitude toward veterans undergo a dramatic shift. He is often invited to events recognizing veterans — and the dedication in Stafford was the latest. After his friend bought him a brick in the memorial, Nichols said he immediately made arrangements to travel from his home in Ohio to Stafford for the ceremony.
“It is a beautiful memorial,” he said. “It is so good to see this.”
Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller remarked that the community did “a very good thing” by creating the memorial. He said other localities will be encouraged to embark on the arduous path of bringing similar projects to life by having Stafford’s memorial as an example.
He also noted that the communities desperately need places like the memorial to reflect on the sacrifices of U.S. veterans. It will also provide a place for veterans to share their stories.
“We tell stories; that is how we pass on our legacy and history,” Neller said. “Sometimes it is difficult, but we must do it.”
A community effort
Stafford Supervisor Gary Snellings, who played a leading role in transforming the memorial from a dream to a reality, said the idea for the memorial was born several years ago with the loss of a young Marine from Stafford.
Marine Sgt. Donald J. Lamar II was just 23 years old when he was killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2010. Lamar was an integral part of the community, playing football and coaching wrestling at Stafford High School.
Following his death, Lamar’s parents approached the Stafford Board of Supervisors with a petition to name a road after their son.
Snellings said the board wanted to do more than that — and it was then that the idea for the memorial began to germinate.
“Naming a street after a hero was just not enough,” Snellings said. “We wanted to build something lasting that would honor his memories forever.”
So, the board established a working group that labored tirelessly to get the project rolling, meeting as often as every one to two weeks to refine their plans. One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to raise $838,000 for the memorial.
Snellings said the board agreed to put forth the seed money, but that still left them with a lot of money to raise. Through the work of Dan Chichester, chairman of the working group, and Retired Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas, many generous donors stepped up to the plate.
“We raised that money — and quickly — because of this great community we live in,” Snellings said.
Local schools also became involved in the project. The drawings of five Stafford high school students influenced the final design of the memorial.
In addition, the work of a local artist, Jason Breidenbach, was etched into the black granite wall that serves as the focal point of the memorial. The image depicts several figures representing each major conflict from the Revolutionary War to the present.
“This is a great day for Stafford County, a day that has been a long time coming,” Snellings said.
Lamar’s mother, Coleen, said there is no other way to describe the feeling of seeing the memorial completed than “overwhelmed, happy, proud and, above all, honored.”
Donald Lamar, the fallen marine’s father, said there were many moments during the ceremony where he felt a knot his stomach as memories of his son flooded his mind. At one point, an eagle flew overhead, and the family knew Donald was present.
As he stood on the podium looking out at the large crowd gathered to celebrate the dedication, Snellings reminded those in attendance of a saying.
“It is said that every man dies twice: on the day he takes his last breath and again when his name is spoken for the last time,” Snellings said, as he choked back tears. “This memorial ensures these names will never be spoken for the last time.”