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The Highground - Remembering all veterans

July 25, 2013 | 0 comments

It's known as "The Highground," a word known to everyone who served in the armed forces, those who have read about military engagements conducted over the centuries and even to children who played the old game of "king of the hill."

There are 148 acres in The Highground Memorial Park located three miles west of Neillsville on Highway US 10 right in the middle of Wisconsin. The Highground never closes and is manned 365 days a year.

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 cost of things - the human cost.

It is managed and maintained by volunteers and many folks consider it the most impressive and memorable veterans memorial park anywhere.

I knew the land and hill on which The Highground is sited as a farm field, too steep to be considered work land, rather home to grazing cows and deer.

I remember the sight of some 130 deer grazing on the hillside on a summer evening and the hundreds of people from nearby Neillsville who gathered to view the interesting sight.

I also remember the nearby 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 Clark County agricultural agent (and to local residents and visitors over the decades) that the view from the top of the ridge in the township of Pine Valley was one to be visited time after time and enjoyed.

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 in 1965, while 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 like-inking Vietnam veterans renewed his vision to honor Jack and all veterans of that conflict through a memorial.

From that small beginning, thousands of people were mobilized in the effort to build a tribute to Vietnam veterans: It was to be located away from a big city to avoid later crowding and positioned so that every Wisconsin resident could travel to and from the site in a day's time.

In 1985, the Wisconsin Vietnam Veterans Memorial Project acquired 140 acres of pasture and scrub tree land located on the down slope of a high ridge near Neillsville.

A donation from the Listeman Foundation and the gift of a small wayside from the State of Wisconsin made the acquisition possible.

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.

The volunteers

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

From a humble beginning, this grassroots effort continues to expand because of 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. The 148-acre park also offers four miles of walking paths along wooded areas that offers space to honor veterans of all wars.

Volunteer general manager Kirk Rodman says that some 150,000 people visit The Highground yearly. "They come from everywhere," he says. "Some veterans come for 'healing,' many visitors come to remember, some have relatives who fought or died in a war, many come to share history, others come just to come."

Students from surrounding schools visit in large numbers to learn about history through the memorials on the grounds and via the library, media center and gallery in our new Learning Center, he adds.

It's difficult to believe but very true that this complex was developed by and is run by volunteers. (There are only two paid employees: the groundskeeper and the gift shop clerk.)

There are some 330 volunteers that contribute time and efforts over the course of the year. These include those who help during the annual April Cleanup week; the many helpers at the events held on the grounds; the "porch greeters" that welcome visitors as they arrive in the parking lot and outfit them with the audio tapes describing the walking tour and its sites and those doing heavy labor on and around the various memory sites.

Some of the sidewalks connecting the various sites are made up of "Legacy Stones" with the names of people honored by purchasers who want them honored and remembered.

A history, photos, clippings and other memorabilia of the honoree are kept in the Registry books at The Highground.

Kirk and Nancy Rodman are the volunteer general manager and gift shop operator respectively. Both are retirees from careers in retail marketing and began working as volunteers at The Highground in 1996 after moving to nearby Lake Arbutus.

In 2001 the Rodmans became volunteer co-managers of The Highground and have continued in the unpaid positions since.

As from day one in the mid 1980s, the Highground is operated, maintained and continually expanded by donations.

Although it is a place where peace and calm reign, it is the center of activity year round such as: The 29th annual bicycle tour Aug. 1-4 when cyclists come from several directions after riding for three days on their journey to The Highground; The 13th annual motorcycle rally, Aug. 16-17; and on Sept. 14, the 25th anniversary of "Fragments," the tribute to Vietnam veterans. The Highground is a place where the veterans and families of all wars are honored, for World War I to the soon to come, Wisconsin Persian Gulf Tribute.

There is information aplenty about The Highground: Phone 608-743-4224 or on the web at www.highground@tds.net.

A destination

It is a true "destination," located on US Highway 10 in Clark County, Wisconsin's leading dairy county. Veteran or not, it is a place not to be missed.

Michael Weaver, Kaukauna, board chair of The Highground offer this invitation. "Remember this: when you visit The Highground, you will be "welcomed home". The staff and the volunteers that work at the Park, are extremely honored to serve you.

This is a very special healing ground. You will be in awe of the location. As you tour the grounds, a sense of calm and peace will wash over you. It makes no difference where you fought for Freedom, Europe, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, Afghanistan. You are among your brothers and sisters.

This is your park. It is your special place to come and be refreshed. To be renewed. To heal. Take the first step to come back home. The door is always open, 24/7.

John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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