COLUMNISTS

Every day is Veterans Day at The Highground

John Oncken
Korean War tribute is comprised of three figures placed on a platform in the shape of Korea surrounded by water and reflects the difficult conditions experienced by the soldiers who fought in places with names like Heartbreak Ridge.

Last week, we honors veterans on Veterans Day. Since 1919, when President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as the first commemoration of Armistice Day, the day has been set aside to mark the time that World War I - known as The Great War - was officially ended when the Treaty of Versailles was signed on June 28, 1919.

However, fighting had ceased seven months earlier when an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.” 

The President issued the proclamation with the following words: "To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"

The original concept for the celebration was for a day observed with parades and public meetings and a brief suspension of business beginning at 11:00 a.m.

The U.S. Congress officially recognized the end of World War I when it passed a concurrent resolution on June 4, 1926, with these words:

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”

Dedicated in 1993, the World War II stainless-steel globe represents the broad reach of the conflict and the world's involvement in this war which touched every continent in some way. Visitors are encouraged to pick up a free audio tour in the gift shop before walking the plaza.

All day, every day

And so it is – veterans are celebrated by law that one day a week nationally but not so at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park, located just west of Neillsville, Wisconsin where veterans are celebrated 24/7 365 days a year.

The Highground started as the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project.  It has now grown to a 155 acre park, including a museum, and several additional facilities and is now the nation's Premier Veterans (from all wars) Memorial Park in the country.

An educational center was part of the original vision for The Highground. The learning center became a reality when the Parks neighbors decided to sell to the The Highground which needed to expand to accommodate more visitors and unexpected grants becoming available.

Today The Highground Museum contains a library filled with over 4,000 books covering military history. and the gallery, media room and meeting room houses many of the different exhibits. The Museum Coordinator is responsible for the daily operations and donations including artifacts and library materials, and exhibit setup and removal. The coordinator also researches, evaluates and books the incoming exhibits.

The Forgotten Warriors - the National Native American Vietnam veterans.

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 human cost. It is managed and maintained largely by volunteers and many folks consider it the most impressive and memorable veterans memorial park anywhere.  There are now tributes to veterans of all our nation’s wars 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, instead home to grazing cows and deer.  I also remember the sight of some 130 deer grazing on the hillside one summer evening and the hundreds of people from nearby Neillsville who gathered to view the interesting sight.

Back then there was the 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 extends to the horizon. 

It was no secret to me during my brief eight years as the 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 bee selected for this memorial.

The statue 'Fragments' consists of four mutually supporting interlocked figures. The figures are fragmented recognizing the fragmentation of lives not only during war, but also in life.

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 back in 1965, while stationed 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.

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

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

The Highgrounds is also the home of the National Native American Vietnam Veterans Memorial which was selected by the Congress of Native American Indians in 1994.

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

From a humble beginning, this grassroots effort continues to expand with its now dozens of tributes to veterans of all wars thanks 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. 

Ringing a replica of the Liberty Bell at the Highground.

According to the website, reunions are hosted throughout the year for Veterans to reunite with other Veterans from the same era, sharing their experiences, enjoying the camaraderie and educating guests.

“Some 150,000 people from everywhere visit The Highground yearly,” the manager says.  “Some veterans come for healing, many come  to remember, some have relatives who fought or died in a war, many come to share histor.  through the memorials on the grounds and via the library, media center and gallery in the Learning Center. Others come just to come.”

So come. Learn. Enjoy.

John F. Oncken can be reached at jfodairy2@gmail.com