The hot Arizona sun beat down on more than 500 people as they gathered in a dirt lot in Gilbert. Veterans and community members stood next to collapsible white chairs lining the stage. The national anthem rang out over the silent crowd as the groundbreaking ceremony for Welcome Home Veterans Park began.
The dirt lot, formerly owned by the city, will be transformed into a memorial for veterans, including the more than 58,000 people who served and died in the Vietnam War, said John Chiazza, a member of the committee planning the local memorial.
The 3-year project will include a replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. built at an 80 percent scale, he said. There will be more than 600 names of people from Arizona on the wall.
“I have some friends that are on there,” said Chiazza, who served during the Vietnam War. “It really means a lot to be a part of it.”
The $3 million memorial will be the only replica of its kind west of the Mississippi River, said Chiazza. The location in Gilbert will be more convenient for people who live in the West when it opens on Veterans Day in 2017, he said.
“There are people who will not be able to see the actual wall in D.C. because they’re getting up in age,” Chiazza said.
The park will also pay tribute to veterans from other wars through a Walk of Tranquility, a Walk of Time and other memorials, Chiazza said. An education center and veterans services building will also be part of the memorial.
“Since it is called Welcome Home Veterans Park we don’t want to just limit it to Vietnam Veterans,” Chiazza said.
Money for the Arizona Wall Project was raised by the nonprofit organization Operation Welcome Home Arizona.
Vietnam Veteran Fred Marable, who attended the groundbreaking in a Civil War uniform, remembered friends he lost during the Vietnam War. He said that seeing their names on the memorial in Washington D.C. was “heartbreaking” and he will feel the same way when he sees their names on the wall in Arizona.
Shovels plunged into the dirt of the future memorial park Welcome Home Veterans Park as the ceremony came to a close. This was not the first time that one of the shovels has been used for the groundbreaking of a Vietnam Memorial. More than 30 years earlier, the center shovel in the line of nine was used in the groundbreaking of the first wall in Washington D.C. more than 2,000 miles across the country.