NEILLSVILLE — The wind speaks when it blows across the ridge through clusters of wind chimes inscribed with 1,244 names of those from Wisconsin who died or are missing in action in the Vietnam War.
Tears are shed daily. Most are symbolic and flow over and through a fountain. Others well in the eyes of those who come here to remember, pray and heal.
There are no tanks, Jeeps, helicopters, artillery guns or other mechanisms of war, save for a few bronze rifles that have been incorporated into stunning sculptures at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park.
Located along Highway 10 with panoramic views of Clark County and beyond, the now 168-acre park dedicated in 1988 is meant not to celebrate war but honor those who served and pay tribute to the men and women lost in battles ranging from World War I through Afghanistan.
David Johnson has been coming here since he was in high school in the 1960s. At that time, it was farmland and just down the road from a scenic overlook that was a regular stop while on his way from Marshfield to the nearby Bruce Mound ski hill.
On Wednesday, he was returning to his home in Bessemer, Michigan, after visiting his daughter in La Crosse when he stopped for a slow walk with frequent pauses to remember his brother, Charles. The 24-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant was killed during an ambush by the Viet Cong in 1967.
Johnson, 68, was also thinking of his son, Alex Stauder, who died last year of an opioid overdose. He was 28 years old and had a master’s degree in chemical dependency counseling from Marquette University.
“It just brings me peace,” Johnson said of his visits to The Highground. “I always feel good coming here. It’s very somber and spiritual.”
What began with 100 acres, a flag pole and a single sculpture has wildly surpassed the vision of its founders who wanted to create a place to honor those who served in Vietnam and pay tribute to family and friends who supported them during their deployment and return. Today, the park also includes memorials and exhibits on World War I and World War II, Korea and the Persian Gulf wars. It draws between 150,000 and 175,000 visitors a year and is believed to be the only staffed veterans’ park in the U.S., outside of Washington, D.C.
On Saturday, between 3,000 and 5,000 people are expected to mark the park’s 30th anniversary. Planning for the event began in January but organizers initially thought it would be a relatively small affair. Instead, it has ballooned into a major production that includes more than 25,000 yellow ribbons being hung in nearly 45 surrounding communities and remaining up until Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
“It’s gotten to be huge. There have been hundreds and hundreds of volunteers,” said Jon Weiler, 51, The Highground’s executive director, who spent 28 years in the U.S. Army, most of that time in the Middle East. “There’s a peace that overcomes people when they come here and you wouldn’t expect this kind of thing in central Wisconsin but it’s here.”
The park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, charges no admission with its $450,000 operating budget covered by grants, fundraisers and private donations. The park relies on more than 300 volunteers who do everything from maintenance to archiving. From April through October, some of the volunteers serve as greeters where they sit on lawn chairs or at picnic benches near the parking lot and hand out equipment for free audio tours and get to know the visitors.
The park is home to the National Native American Vietnam Veterans Tribute dedicated in 1995 and bearing, in alphabetical order, the names of Native American troops from tribes around the country killed in Vietnam. They include Paul Pamanet, a private in the U.S. Army killed in action in 1968, and Martin Pamonicutt, a U.S. Marine killed in 1969. They are listed next to each other. Both were from the village of Neopit on the Menominee Reservation northwest of Green Bay.
“Native American veterans, most of them volunteered. Very few were drafted,” Weiler said. “They had the highest percentage of volunteers in Vietnam.”
The park also includes meditation gardens, a replica of the Liberty Bell that is free to be rung by visitors and an effigy mound in the shape of a dove built with soil from all of the state’s 72 counties. Visitors are encouraged to walk or sit on the mound.
There’s a learning center with a wall of photos arranged by county of each person from Wisconsin killed in Vietnam. The center, dedicated in 2010, also holds a library with a collection of 15,000 books and a museum filled with uniforms, photos and other donated memorabilia from a number of wars. An archive of three-ring binders hold the stories of thousands from Wisconsin who served in the military including those killed in action.
The most recent addition to the park is the Military Working Dog Tribute. Dedicated in June, it features a life-size bronze sculpture of a Vietnam-era handler and his dog. The tribute includes the names of handlers and their dogs, all but one being from the Vietnam War Era.
Al Laughlin, now 81, spent 18 months with his guard dog, Prinz, in Korea from late 1955 to early 1957. Together, he and his German shepherd guarded an airport, bases and the peace talks along the Demilitarized Zone as part of the 8125th Sentry Dog Detachment.
Last week, Laughlin, a Detroit native who has lived in Neillsville since 1972, stood near the monument and reflected on time with his dog and his days in Korea after the fighting had ceased.
“I miss my dog,” said Laughlin, who was on the committee to create the Military Working Dog Tribute and was volunteering Wednesday as a greeter at the park. “I love coming out here. You meet these people and you hear their stories. It makes you humble.”
The park’s genesis dates to 1965 in Ky Phu, Vietnam. That’s when Tom Miller, a U.S. Marine from Milwaukee, and his unit were attacked by the Viet Cong. Miller and his good friend, Jack Swender, took up defensive positions in a house before a light-weight artillery shell blew apart the home’s rear wall. Swender died in Miller’s arms.
In 1983, eight years after the fall of Saigon and the end of the war, Miller began working to establish a Vietnam Veterans memorial.
Miller wanted a place that was accessible to those throughout the state and not located in an urban area. Serious consideration was given to a site in Adams County but in the end, Clark County won out, thanks in part to the efforts of Don Quicker, a Neillsville native, accountant and Vietnam veteran who had been awarded the Bronze Star.
Quicker had just graduated from UW-Eau Claire when he was drafted in 1968. He spent a year in Vietnam and barely escaped being killed when a 122-millimeter rocket exploded less than 200 feet away. He was just outside of the kill zone of the blast and 30 miles from North Vietnam.
When he returned to the states in September 1970, he was spit on in the Seattle airport.
“You wake up one day in Vietnam and 72 hours later, you’re dropped off on the streets of your hometown with no debriefing, no nothing,” Quickers said. “Six medical people gave 120 (discharge) physicals in 20 minutes time. I was 143 pounds when I went over there and when I came back I was 112 pounds.”
Quicker was the chairman of the Neillsville Economic Development Commission and in October 1985 made a presentation in Madison to the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project Board of Directors. Of the three groups of four people each from Taylor, Adams and Clark counties, Quicker was the only Vietnam veteran. He sold the board on a site of rolling wooded farmland with a bit of pasture. It offered views of 500,000 more acres and was about 30 miles northwest of the state’s geographic center.
“When I gave my presentation, there was dead silence in the room. You could have heard a pin drop,” Quicker said.
A 70-foot-tall flag pole was planted in 1986 followed by engineering work in 1987 by the Wisconsin National Guard that helped level part of the hillside. The plaza and the Vietnam Veterans Tribute known as Fragments, were dedicated in 1988. It was the first veterans tribute in the country to include a woman in the statuary. Under poncho are bundles of bamboo-shaped bronze rods each filled with chimes engraved with the names of Wisconsin’s Vietnam War dead.
It includes Charles Johnson who was posthumously awarded the Silver Star. According to his award documents, Johnson’s armored personnel carrier took a direct hit from an anti-tank weapon and came under fire from automatic weapons and hand grenades. With the vehicle disabled and several members of the crew wounded, Johnson attempted to dismount the vehicle so that he could continue the assault when he was killed on a June morning in 1967
His brother, David Johnson, who was drafted in 1970 into the U.S. Army but served stateside during the war, had seen Charles’ name on the chime years ago and found it again last week. The park also has legacy stones with the name of his brother and his father, who also was a veteran and had 11 children.
“We’ve been drawn here quite a bit as a family,” Johnson said. “It’s just deep-rooted in our family. We’re so lucky to have it.”