Vets launch $10M plan for monuments at Florida National Cemetery
By TOM MCNIFF | Daily Commercial, Leesburg, Fla. | Published: August 29, 2019
LEESBURG, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — A group of veterans on Wednesday launched an effort to erect an impressive array of monuments to memorialize the service and sacrifice of military veterans at the entrance to Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell.
Freedom Memorial Plaza could feature as many as 16 monuments erected over time on two acres at a total cost of $10 million, according to Doug Gardner, spokesman for the nonprofit Joint Veterans Support Committee that is heading the project.
The committee plans to go big with the first two monuments.
The Military Honors Funeral will be a plaza within the plaza. It will feature two life-sized bronze military figures folding a flag over a bronze casket against a backdrop of 7-foot-high granite columns arranged in a semicircle. Each column will depict a specific ritual of a military funeral, including the playing of taps, gun salutes and the presentation of a folded flag to the veteran's next of kin.
Nearby will be a goliath Defenders of Freedom Wall stretching 470 feet and featuring 6-foot panels that depict every American conflict, starting with the Revolutionary War and moving chronologically up through current-day conflicts.
Gardner said the committee has not settled on the 14 other monuments but is considering one to honor Gold Star Families, as well as monuments that honor POW-MIAs, Purple Heart recipients, Medal of Honor recipients, Special Forces operators, Native American veterans and those who served in the World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gardner said the effort was propelled by a simple observation: Florida National Cemetery is one of the few major national resting grounds without monuments to honor veterans' sacrifice.
The cemetery currently features a Memorial Pathway that is lined with 51 small memorials — essentially plaques honoring veterans of 20th century conflicts. Freedom Memorial Plaza will connect with Memorial Pathway.
"I've bought into their vision," said Tony Thomas, executive director of Florida National Cemetery. "Now my job is to facilitate a smooth process for them the best I can."
Thomas has been with Veterans Affairs for 14 years and oversaw Riverside National Cemetery in California, which had its own array of monuments.
"During a holiday season, people would come in and visit those monuments. I loved it," he said. "I've always wondered why more national cemeteries didn't have these kinds of monuments."
Wednesday's kickoff at the Eisenhower Regional Recreation Center in The Villages drew hundreds of veterans, dignitaries and supporters and featured a videotaped message by U.S. Sen. Rick Scott.
"There's no place like The Villages to truly honor and celebrate those who fought for this country," state Sen. Dennis Baxley said before the ceremony got underway. "This is a special day."
With the public launch complete, the Joint Veterans Support Committee expects to embark on a massive fundraising effort soon. It will also enlist help from veterans groups to consult on particular monuments and weigh in on design elements.
One community group, the Daughters of the American Revolution in The Villages, is already on board, Gardner said. The DAR has agreed to help come up with the images and narratives for the panels that will describe the Revolutionary War on the Defenders of Freedom Wall.
And at the the kickoff event, two groups presented checks to stimulate the fundraising effort. The Lions Club of Orange Blossom Gardens donated $2,000, and the Special Forces Association Chapter 60 of Tampa gave $1,000.
For more information or to donate to the Freedom Memorial Plaza project, go to https://jvsc.us.