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OPINION

The Highground Vietnam Veterans Memorial: a destination not to be missed

John Oncken

The schools are closed, as are the churches, most businesses and well — most everything. Except for the farms where the cows must still be fed and milked, livestock cared for and the wide variety and absolutely required farm chores like spreading manure, going to the implement dealer for parts and getting equipment ready for the field must be carried out. Even then getting anything done is difficult at best as the coronavirus messes up our lives, keeping the nation indoors.

A great day trip

But life will resume to normality one day (hopefully soon) and we’ll get back in our cars and go places. Here’s a suggestion for a great day trip you’ll need after being locked up for so long, that everyone from youngsters to granddad and especially armed forces veterans will enjoy.

It’s known as “The Highground,” a word known to everyone who served in the armed forces, those who have read about military engagements conducted over the centuries and even to children who played the old game of “king of the hill.” 

There are some 150 acres in The Highground Memorial Park located three miles west of Neillsville on Highway US 10 right in the middle of Wisconsin. The Highground never closes (except for pandemics) and is manned 365 days a year. 

Remembering veterans

This is not a war memorial, rather it is a veterans memorial park with the mission to honor human courage and sacrifice and to educate about the cost of  things — the human cost. It is managed and maintained largely by volunteers and many folks consider it the most impressive and memorable veterans memorial park anywhere. 

The Korean Tribute honors those from "the forgotten war".

There are now tributes to veterans of all our nation’s wars from World War I to the Persian Gulf, to Gold Star families, nurses, Native Americans and recently military working dogs and more.  

A cow pasture

I knew the land and hill on which The Highground is sited as a farm field, too steep to be considered work land, home to grazing cows and deer. I remember the sight of some 130 deer grazing on the hillside on a summer evening and the hundreds of people from nearby Neillsville who gathered to view the interesting sight.

I also remember the nearby fire tower and picnic table where Jan and I took our young children for supper picnics and to look out over the half million acres of Clark County  forest that extended to the horizon. 

It was no secret to me during my brief eight years as Clark County agricultural agent   (and to local residents and visitors over the decades) that the view from the ridge top in the township of Pine Valley was one to be visited time after time and enjoyed. No more appropriate site could have been selected for this memorial.

The beginning

A small group of Wisconsin Vietnam veterans agreed (in 1984) that this imposing site was the ideal location for the memorial envisioned by Tom Miller in 1965, while in a far-off place called Ky Phu in the heat of battle during the Vietnam conflict.  As his buddy,  Jack Swender, died in his arms during that battle, Miller vowed that his companion would not be forgotten.

Jim Henchen,  Neilsville, an active volunteer  at The Highground and the famed Liberty Bell replica.

Nearly 20 years later ( in 1983), Miller again picked up that vow and a with a small group of like-minded Vietnam veterans, renewed his vision to honor Jack and all veterans of that conflict through a memorial. 

From that small beginning, hundreds of people were mobilized in the effort to build a tribute to Vietnam veterans. It was to be located away from a big city to avoid later crowding and positioned so that every Wisconsin resident could travel to and from the site in a day’s time. 

140 acres

In 1985, the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project acquired 140 acres of  pasture and scrub tree land located on the down slope of a high ridge near Neillsville.  

A donation from the Listeman Foundation and the gift of a small wayside from the State of Wisconsin made the acquisition possible. The site was soon dubbed "The Highground" by the veterans.

Although the site is recognized as Wisconsin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial, there has never been nor is there any ongoing federal or state funding. 

The volunteers

While the memorial is rooted in the Vietnam War, The Highground was incorporated in 1984 as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization and honors all veterans. 

From a humble beginning, this grassroots effort continues to expand with its now dozens of tributes to veterans of all wars due to the dedication of countless individuals, families, organizations, and businesses that have given, and continue to give, of their time, talents, and financial resources. 

In 1986, the 70-foot flagpole and lights became the first permanent structures on the grounds and construction has continued nonstop since. The 148-acre park also offers four miles of walking paths along wooded areas that offers space to honor veterans of all wars.

The Wisconsin Vietnam Tribute is located at the point of the plaza.

Some 150,000 people visit The Highground yearly from everywhere, the former (now retired) volunteer manager told me.  

“Some veterans come for ‘healing,’ many visitors come to remember, some have relatives who fought or died in a war, many come to share history (including students from surrounding schools who visit in large numbers to learn about history through the memorials on the grounds and via the library, media center and gallery in the Learning Center) he adds, others come just to come.”

It’s difficult to believe but very true that this complex was developed by and is run by volunteers. 

“There are only seven paid employees,” says Board of director member Gary Weirauch. longtime ag banker at Loyal. “We were recently gifted Camp Victory, previously known as Wisconsin Adventures on Wheels (WAW),  a privately funded nonprofit development dedicated and designed solely to provide a quality outdoor experience on several hundred acres some 15 miles away for mobility challenged individuals, veterans, and their families. We are continually expanding.”

Walking on memories

Some of the sidewalks connecting the various sites are made up of “Legacy Stones” with the names of people honored by purchasers who want them honored and remembered. A history, photos, clippings and other memorabilia of the honoree are kept in the Registry books at The Highground.

Over the years I’ve visited many war or veterans memorials, none like The Highground.  As a veteran you’ll remember. As a relative or friend of a veteran, you’ll think and learn.  The Highground is a destination you will enjoy. But not until the world goes back to normal and the The Highground fully reopens. Plan for a visit and mark it down. 

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications,  He can be reached at 608-837-7406 or e-mail him at jfodairy2@gmail,com.