Van Buren’s Veterans Memorial Plaza opened Wednesday (July 25) amid sweltering temperatures. Hundreds of residents gathered for over an hour. They spilled out into Freedom Park and lined Main Street. Their mission: to welcome a new destination designed to reflect on and honor sacrifices made by veterans from each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
The $750,000 memorial — which faces the $1.7 million Freedom Park that opened in 2017 — is now a finished product three years in the making. Something Van Buren Mayor Bob Freeman called a “community effort” spanning generations.
Architecturally, it features a series of geysers that represent Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and POWs/MIAs. The waters stream downwards toward a star-shaped fountain in the Plaza’s center. In the fountain, there is a battle cross representing fallen soldiers.
They were two of many service member participants spanning generations. Other guests consisted of service members as well as deceased service members’ living relatives. They ranged from World War II to the currently enlisted. Maj. Walter Moon’s children, Karen and Gary, raised the POW/MIA flag. Moon was a Special Forces advisor declared missing while deployed to Laos in 1961. The wife, Pat, and daughter, Angel, of Vian, Okla., native Neil Stanley Bynam were also in attendance. Bynam was an Air Force pilot shot down over Laos in 1969.
Participation went well beyond the Armed Forces as well. Freeman — a retired Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army — told Talk Business & Politics the effort began with the original park in 1975, thanks largely to the late Dr. Louis Peer. Peer’s “Hometown Heroes” banner now overlooks the park. Peer, Freeman said, was “key and instrumental in the revitalization of the downtown.” The old park had “just gotten a little tired, and we felt that it was time for a facelift.” Freeman said the redesign sought to move “from a focus on the wars and battles to a focus on the Services.”
“I think Dr. Peer would be proud of what he sees here today,” Freeman said.
Pat Biggerstaff, Peer’s nephew, was the architect on the project. Biggerstaff had the idea to place Haynes’ battle cross in the star fountain. His idea fed off one from Pac Printers owner David King. King said he had a dream one night about the fountains coming together, Freeman said. Other participants included the Van Buren Chamber of Commerce and Lions Club. The city’s parks and planning departments also worked on the project. Crawford Construction headed the implementation.
On Wednesday, younger generations got involved as well, something Freeman deemed especially important.
“Only 7% of the total U.S. population are veterans or a member of the Armed Forces. Half of them are over the age of 60,” Freeman said, adding there was “a changing demographic,” and a continued need for education.
Representing the youngest of the Veterans Memorial Plaza contributors, local seventh-grader Katelyn King read her essay, “America’s Gift to My Generation.” The essay won the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Patriot Pen competition in Arkansas and placed seventh nationally.
In it, King praised her country for its “valuable history” and for being “welcoming of others that want to be Americans, and, most importantly, our rights and freedoms provided by our brave countrymen and women.” King said that as a “part-Cherokee Indian, young, female citizen, many of those characteristics could make me a less valuable citizen in many countries. But in America, thanks to the warriors of our freedom, I have a voice, I have a place, and I have value.”