The following photos and excerpt are taken from our book Fallen Never Forgotten: Vietnam Memorials in the USA. This is the chapter about Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial at The Highground in particular. Click the images to enlarge.
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Chapter 49: Vietnam Memorial, The Highground Veterans Park, Neillsville, WI
The Highground in Neillsville is a 155-acre manned veterans memorial park that pays tribute to the dead, and honors the survivors, their service, and their sacrifices. The Highground fulfills its mission of healing and education by bringing past lessons into our hopes for the future. We seek to have The Highground continue to be a focus of healing for all who come, regardless of the name of the battle which left the scars.
The park is open daily, 24 hours a day, year-round. Besides the Vietnam Tribute, the park also contains tributes for WWI through the present, Wisconsin Persian Gulf War. Specific to Vietnam, there are tributes for Vietnam Veterans, named “Fragments”; the National Native American Tribute; Fountain of Tears includes a Vietnam GI; a Nurse in the place of honor in front of the main 75’ flagpole; the study of the “Three Soldiers”; and the Effigy Dove Mound. A future tribute is the Military Working Dog Tribute based on Vietnam.
“More than for all veterans, more than for those who did not come back, The Highground is a place for all of us.” Incorporated in 1984 as the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project, Inc., this grass-roots effort continues only because of the dedication of countless individuals, families, organizations, and businesses who have given of their time, talents, and financial resources. Volunteers and Contributors are the Heart of The Highground.
History of the Memorial
The idea for The Highground was actually born on December 18, 1965 on a battlefield in Vietnam. Twenty four year old Tom Miller was holding in his arms his good friend and buddy, 22 year old Jack Swender. Jack was unconscious and bleeding from a large piece of shrapnel that had torn his throat and severed his jugular vein. As Jack lay dying in Tom’s arms, Tom made a silent promise to himself and to Jack that this terrible loss and great sacrifice would not be given in vain.
It took 18 years for Tom to act on his promise. And then it was not easy. The decade that spanned the war in Vietnam was a very difficult and turbulent time in our nation’s history. Afterwards, the service of Vietnam veterans, for the most part, was neither respected nor appreciated. Even by 1983, six months of effort to interest people in building a small memorial to Wisconsin’s Vietnam veterans proved to be fruitless. Everyone, including other veterans, turned a deaf ear to Tom’s proposal. Many even laughed at him.
Finally one person lent his name to Tom’s attempt. Then several others joined the effort. In 1983, he teamed up with the Wisconsin delegation of Vietnam Veterans of America to make his dream of a Vietnam memorial a reality. With their help, Miller was able to turn The Highground into a veteran’s park to honor the men and women in the US armed forces. By late 1984, when the incorporation papers were signed, there were a total of eight people committed to the project. Most of the funding to that date had come out of Tom’s pockets.
Features of the Vietnam Memorials
This is the first veterans tribute in the US to include a woman in the statuary. She is wearing a helmet to show that she’s at risk. She bears the weight of the names of all the Wisconsin service personnel who gave their lives in Vietnam. The requirements for the design requested that the names of all Wisconsin casualties be present, and not resemble a tombstone. The names are etched on the bronze bundles which are interspersed with wind-chimes. They were never meant to be read, but to be voiced in sound so that the thoughts and prayers left here go out into the hillsides and beyond. If you were to count the names in the bundles you would find 1214 and then add 30 for the missing in action and find 1244 service personnel who gave their lives in Vietnam from Wisconsin.
You will notice the rifle in the background is turned upside down. It is a sign that a Medivac is needed; a sign that it is not being used as a weapon. Woodland American Indian symbols are etched on the rifle. Also, embedded in the rifle is a piece of orange stained glass, to remind us about Agent Orange and the other toxic chemicals used in Vietnam. As a result of their exposure, many veterans have lost their lives and their children continue to suffer with birth defects.
“Fragments” is the only tribute that is not signed by the designer. Bob Kanyusik refused to sign the statuary. During the dedication of the tribute in 1988 he said “I could not sign it. It was signed by the men and women whose names are embedded on the bundles in the back; by their families; by all the people during all those terrible years of the Vietnam War in the US. It was signed by the cost of things. It was signed by all of us.” This philosophy, that it was signed by all of us, became the guiding principal for The Highground. It was signed by all of us; and it belongs to all of us.
Many visitors come the The Highground and completely miss the Earthen Dove Effigy Mound in the valley below Fragments. Designed by David Giffey, the Dove measures 100 feet from head to tail and the wing span is 140 feet long. At the highest point, it is 6 ½ feet deep. The Dove honors Prisoners of War (referred to as POWs) and those who remain Missing in Action (referred to as MIAs). It is made up of the earth from all 72 counties in Wisconsin; many states in the US, North and South Vietnam; and 18 countries. At The Highground, there is another MIA—Missing In America—for every service person killed in action, there are twenty more service personnel that return to American missing part of themselves, be it an arm, leg, part of their psychic, or a combination of any of these.
It is a tribute whose origins come from the Native American Mound tradition. At the 1989 dedication ceremony, Native American Vietnam veteran John (Bow-deen) Beaudin, explained the symbolic purpose of the mound: “It is a spiritual place where you can go and let your mother, the Earth, hold you. Let the children play on it. Dance on it. Use it to unload your grief and pain. Lay back in the soft fold of its wings and let the Mother Earth unburden you. Then get up and leave your troubles and cares there on the mound, as you walk away renewed, refreshed, and strengthened.”
Designed by Roger Brodin is one of the first memorials to commemorate the service of the many women who risked their lives for their nation. Located in front of the flagpole it pays tribute specifically to women veterans. This was a model submitted for the design contest in Washington DC for the women’s tribute there. Had it been chosen it would have been a life sized figure. It was brought to The Highground by the Wisconsin Chapters of the Vietnam Veterans of America. She has a place of honor in front of the flagpole.
An anonymous creator designed the Meditation Garden is a beautiful tribute called “Fountain of Tears”. The Fountain of Tears reminds us of the heartbreaking loss of loved ones. A GI is standing in front of the largest tear drop wearing a poncho and leaning into the wind. He is resting his hand on his buddy’s helmet that is placed on an impaled M-16 rifle. In his right hand are his buddy’s dog tags. His tears are the genesis for the tear drops. The tear drops flow through into the stream bed and under the bridge into the pond. Sitting on the edge of the pond is the widow and child of the deceased GI. They are connected by the tears but separated by the bridge.
The study of the “Three Soldiers” is the Learning Center’s signature tribute located at The Highground Veterans Park. It stands proudly in the Gallery for all to view. Created by Fred Harp, it was brought here in 2011.
The National Native American Vietnam Veterans Memorial began in much the same way as The Highground. The statuary in Washington DC that honors Vietnam veterans has three figures in it: an African American, a Hispanic, and a Caucasian. The Native Americans felt left out. Especially because of all cultural groups in the US, they have the highest rate of service.
They decided that if no one was going to honor them, they were going to honor themselves. Unanimous approval for this decision was given at the annual conference of the National Congress of American Indians held in Denver, Colorado in 1994.
Dedicated in 1995, the National Native American Vietnam Veterans Memorial is the first National Memorial to come to The Highground. Harry Whitehorse, Madison sculptor and WW II veteran, created this bronze sculpture.
Mounted on a ten ton piece of red granite symbolizing the blood that was shed, the sculpture depicts an American Indian soldier in jungle fatigues, holding a rifle in one hand and an Eagle feather staff in the other. At the base, is a circle of white stones depicting a field of honor. The names of all American Indians in North America who died as a result of the Vietnam war are etched into the black granite base which skirts the entire statuary. To complete the tribute, the tribal affiliations of each warrior will be etched onto the granite at a future date.