Jun 15 2021
Bill Thompson | The Villages Daily Sun
On the west side of the Florida National Cemetery, crews are preparing a virgin 40-acre parcel to be the eventual eternal resting place for thousands of military veterans.
This $42.1 million federal project is expected to be complete in 2025, officials said.
But by this fall, visitors to the Bushnell site will see a more immediate and conspicuous tribute to those who served and sacrificed in defense of our nation.
The Joint Veterans Support Committee, or JVSC, which works with staff to improve amenities at the cemetery, received approval last month to erect a Gold Star Families monument at the front of the facility.
That memorial is the first step in a broader initiative called Freedom Memorial Plaza.
The plaza will sit on 2 acres about a quarter-mile from the cemetery entrance, at a fork in the roads that lead into the heart of the facility.
The project will consume a small fraction of the 591-acre site. But committee members believe it will be an outsized addition in paying homage to veterans and educating the public on military history, including Central Florida’s contribution to that.
Doug Gardener, chairman of the JVSC monument committee, said the inspiration for the project was Tony Thomas, the cemetery’s former director.
About three years ago, Gardener recalled, Thomas offered a simple observation: Where are the monuments?
At the time, the Florida National Cemetery was the second-busiest among the National Cemetery Administration’s 155 facilities.
But, as Thomas noticed, prominent memorials, so common to other cemeteries, were absent.
One issue was that federal law bars the cemetery from asking the public directly to fund such projects, said Gardener, of the Village of Gilchrist and an Army veteran of the Vietnam War.
Thus, the JVSC formed as a nonprofit to help raise money.
“One of our biggest missions is beautification of the cemetery and helping them with ceremonies,” Gardener noted.
This project fit that.
COVID-19 impeded efforts to get the project going last year. But, Gardener said, that was when the group learned about the Hershel “Woody” Williams Foundation.
Williams, the sole surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from World War II, dedicated the foundation to honoring Gold Star families. It does so in part by erecting monuments to families whose loved ones have been killed in combat.
The group’s website notes that its endeavors can be found in all 50 states. It has built 85 monuments, and has another 75 in progress, including at the Florida National Cemetery.
The foundation’s black-granite memorial has a standard design: two large panels with a silhouette of a saluting soldier cut into the middle, and two additional, smaller panels set to one side.
For the JVSC, Gardener said, the cemetery is the “perfect place” for such a monument.
Additionally, the JVSC sought to partner with Williams’ foundation because its design is already approved by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, which reduced the bureaucratic hurdles that had to be overcome.
Gardener said the front of the memorial must adhere to the foundation’s design and message.
While the reverse side of each panel has its own mandated theme — homeland, family, patriot and sacrifice — the community can localize them.
Staff at the cemetery said they welcome the addition.
“These physical reminders of the sacrifices that ordinary Americans made to ensure our way of life, to defend our Constitution and republic, will inspire those who see them to act extraordinarily in the cause of freedom and liberty for all,” said Gerard Lyons, assistant director of the cemetery.
The JVSC intends to use the following images:
Bob Mills, the JVSC treasurer and communications director, said the group is hoping to dedicate the Gold Star Families monument around Oct. 1.
Yet that is just the beginning.
The JVSC master plan includes two other displays.
One, known as the “Burial with Honors” memorial, will actually anchor Freedom Memorial Plaza.
The setting, according to the master plan, will feature two bronze, lifesize statues of soldiers folding a flag above a bronze casket. Flanking that scene will be eight gray granite columns depicting iconic military-funeral images: a riderless horse, a caisson, a rifle salute, the “missing man” formation, an honor guard, a bugler blowing taps, the folding of the flag and a flag presentation.
Freedom Memorial Plaza’s third element is known as “Defenders of Freedom Wall.”
An existing 470-foot-long wall at the back of the plaza property will be covered with 68 panels featuring images of veterans or military history spanning the American Revolution to today, the JVSC plan indicates.
Gardener said the panels cost $3,500 each to create and install. The concept, he added, is to seek sponsors for each. In fact, he said, a local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution already has claimed the first panel.
Mills noted that the panels can be embedded with QR codes that will link to the story behind each individual panel.
The overall project is expected to take a few years, Gardener said.
But once complete, committee members think it will a destination site, particularly for the young.
“We should make it very educational, especially for kids,” said Mills, a Vietnam-era Marine Corps veteran who lives in the Village of LaBelle.
Mills said there is potential to bring busloads of kids in.
“It’s something that appears to be getting lost. They have no concept that other people died for their freedom,” Mills said. “The more we can get people to think beyond their own generation, the world will be a better place. That’s something we can all feel proud of, whether you served or not.”