River Valley Veterans Memorial Park – Honoring those who served

November 1, 2019 | By More

Construction of the River Valley Veterans Memorial Park is underway on three acres on Lake Front Drive near Bona Dea Trails. The purpose of the park is to honor all veterans and currently serving military members from the four-county area, which includes Conway, Johnson, Pope, and Yell Counties.

The ground-breaking ceremony for the park was held on September 15, 2015. Construction is planned in three stages: 1) The parking lot. 2) A Walk of Honor along with a pavilion and stage for local events. 3) Completion of the pavilion and compartments dedicated to major wars in U. S. history. Currently, the project is in stages two and three.

The River Valley Veterans Coalition (RVVC) has worked toward progress on the park with support from the City of Russellville and the Corps of Engineers, public donations, and memorial stone purchases. The RVVC was created to promote patriotic activities and provide a refuge and meeting place to recognize and honor all veterans of the United States military armed forces. The group was formed from the local nationally recognized veteran associations: Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, American Legion, Marine Corps League, and the Military Officers Association of America. Three members from each organization serve in the RVCC for a term of one year.

Thoughtful features completed in the park include a World War I centennial field of poppies with seeds obtained from Belgium, and a World War I memorial peace tree with soil from the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France (where six Arkansas River Valley soldiers are buried) mixed with soil from the land of local veterans. The Walk of Honor features several nine-foot walkways flanked by curbs containing engraved granite stones with names of veterans or service members. The walkways lead to the pavilion and are built as funds are available.

Three existing memorials from around Russellville will be moved to the park: A sandstone marker from Crawford School Park, a marble plaque from Gardner School and a granite marker at the corner of Main and Arkansas will all become part of the first park fully dedicated to River Valley veterans.

A donated stained glass gold star emblem was dedicated at a recent ceremony at the pavilion. And a larger, privately sponsored, black granite gold star monument will be erected on the east side of the park in the future.

Wall panels in the pavilion will offer historical and educational information and list the names of those from the four-county area killed or missing from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, and current conflicts.

Of the nearly 9,000 area veterans, several spoke about their military service and their thoughts on the park.

It was D-day when allied troops invaded the beaches of Normandy for the liberation of Europe from Nazi Germany. This was the day Harvey Young, a WWII Navy veteran enlisted. “It was June 6, 1944, a day I’ll never forget.” His book, “Forever Young,” details experiences of WWII and the cold war. Young said of the park, “it is long overdue. I’m a strong supporter and have helped raise funds. I’ve personally bought five memorial stones for my veteran family members.” Young is a retired superintendent of schools and teacher.

Wayne Nordin, a WWII Air Force veteran, said, “it’s is nice to have. We live in the best country in the world, and it’s an honor to be a veteran for our country.” Nordin is a retired Pope County Judge.

Claire McChristy a 30-year Vietnam Army veteran did six tours of Vietnam and spent time in Germany and Korea. He learned abruptly in Vietnam that “we owned the day, but the Viet Cong owned the night.” An evening trip in his jeep to a friend’s unit could have proved fatal when he woke in his jeep and found that “the jeep was riddled with bullet holes and the windshield was broken out.” McChristy’s final post was as a Congressional Liaison Officer at the Pentagon. About the park, Mr. McChristy said, “I didn’t know the park existed, as I travel a lot, but believe it’s a good thing. Some veterans are underappreciated, namely Korean and Vietnam military personnel. There is little talk of the Korean War and Vietnam veterans were met with protestors and ill will upon their return home.”

Four veteran members of the RVVC — Ken Harper, Bill Hefley, Bill Eaton, and Russ Hall — spoke about the park, their service, and what they would like the public to know.

Ken Harper, Pope County’s veterans service officer, is a veteran of both the Navy and the Army. A sad memory for Ken is that he was home on leave when his military police unit was called on for crowd control at the Ramstein Air Show in Germany after three Italian Air Force pilots collided in mid-air and their planes fell onto the spectators killing 70 people in 1988. “Every job (in the service) is important – cooks, clerks, guards – each one are small cogs in a working mechanism. The interaction with the rest is what’s important.” His work on the park is dear to his heart as he has been instrumental in obtaining the poppy seeds for the WWI 100th anniversary and the peace tree planted on Veteran’s Day. “People ask why the park isn’t done or why we’re moving so slowly. The fact is, a proper veterans park was talked about several decades ago by the veteran organizations that were here, but infighting among them eventually ended the planning. The RVVC members working to get it done now are determined to succeed, but these things take time and money — lots of money. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day. We hope the park will be a place where families and friends can go to pay tribute to their loved ones.” Of his current job, Harper said, “I’ve met the best folks in the county – military vets and their families.”

Bill Hefley, a Vietnam veteran, served in the Marines aboard a Navy vessel, the U.S.S. Bennington in the Pacific. He was in the Gulf of Tonkin, Bangkok Thailand, Okinawa, the Philippines, Hawaii, and was in California at the end of his tour just after the Watts riots. Bill was previously involved with the Mental Health Center and the Veterans Clinic. When the RVVC was formed in 2014, “they needed representatives,” Hefley said. “That’s when I became actively involved.” Hefley has been raising funds for the park since that time by writing letters detailing plans for the park and the RVVC to possible contributors. The original cost of the park has more than doubled. He is currently writing grants to State and Federal agencies for additional funds.

Like Hefley, Bill Eaton has been involved since the beginning of the RVCC. He serves as Treasurer for the group and details financial reports and expenses. Eaton was there at the groundbreaking in 2015 and present at every event since. “I believe in service to the community without expectation and without reward,” Eaton, a Vietnam Army veteran, said. “Military service was a great thing. They were straight with me from the start. Vietnam was the first time the news people were uncensored. They had a slanted view and they misinformed. Since 9/11, American people’s attitude has changed toward servicemen and women.” Later, Eaton served in the National Guard for 25 years. He wants River Valley residents to know that even if they did not donate to the park or buy a memorial stone that their loved ones who died in war will be memorialized on the tablets in the pavilion. “We’d like to see the park become a daily hangout for veterans and their family members. Even with articles in the Democrat-Gazette and The Courier, we still find people who have never heard of the park. We want people in counties other than Pope to know that their family members are remembered here.”

Russ Hall, a Vietnam Air Force veteran is also a member of the RVVC. “When I first returned from the service, I didn’t get involved in any service activity. I just wanted to start over,” Hall said. “I had missed most of my young daughter’s life, but Bill (Eaton, his brother-in-law) kept nudging me until I did. Then I became a member of the Military Officers Association of America.” Hall wants people to know that “there will be no wartime machinery installed in the park. Its purpose is to celebrate individuals and those who didn’t make it back.” The features in the park are done with respect. “The angled stones are that way so that no one steps on them and they are easy to read.” Funding the project has become difficult because “we’ve had flooding issues in the area and a change in the tax law regarding charitable contributions. Installing the sidewalks and building the structure all takes time,” Hall said. “We have to sell the memorial tiles first, then the engraving, and then have enough money to complete the construction. We’re on the downhill side now.” He said, “We’d like the families in all four counties to know about the park and that we’re proud of their loved ones.”

For more information about the park, to make donations, or to purchase memorial tiles contact Ken Harper at Pope County Veterans Services, 107 West B Street, Russellville, AR 72801, phone (479) 968-6049, email: popecountyvso@centurytel.net or the River Valley Veterans Coalition contacts Bill Eaton, phone (479) 880-8255, or Russ Hall, phone (479) 968-4884.

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