by Aaron Layman
Over six years ago community members in Vinton and Roanoke County banded together to create a monument that would join the adjacent Vinton War Memorial complex in paying tribute to soldiers that have served, and those that continue to serve. On June 14 their efforts will come to fruition with a public dedication ceremony, starting at 6 p.m., that will introduce the Vinton-Roanoke County Veterans Monument called “High Ground” to the world.
The project had its roots in town meetings where council persons and community members discussed how to take the next step in honoring soldiers. After gauging public support, the Vinton Vision Committee led by Bootie Chewning and Audrey Thrasher formed from a group of local citizens, veterans and government members to create what Assistant Capital Campaign Director Candye Peters calls an “infinite monument” that is more ecumenical in scope. While the War Memorial was built for those Vinton citizens lost in WWII, “High Ground” is meant to honor soldiers both living and gone from Vinton and Roanoke County.
Four mock-ups, created by a number of artists, were presented to the public at the Vinton Municipal Building, where citizens voted on their favorite design. They chose the design by John Kirtley, Mary Babcock and Larry Bechtel, which was then agreed on by the town council and the committee. Groundbreaking began, fittingly enough, on July 4th, 2008 with Kirtley, owner of Hillbilly Pond Works in Roanoke, serving as general contractor.
“High Ground” is an octagonal structure with eight columns and an area inside that focuses on those killed in action. A handcrafted bronze flag sculpture serves as the centerpiece with a natural fountain of water running over boulders and smooth river rocks underneath. Names of those from Roanoke County and Vinton killed in battle from WWII through Operation Desert Storm are engraved in black granite slabs, while military insignia medallions and honorary inscriptions line the lintels at the top of the monument.
The “high ground” theme refers to a friend and Vietnam veteran who told Blacksburg artist Larry Bechtel that a soldier always looks for the high ground when in the heat of battle. The artistic team emphasizes this notion by constructing a terraced structure, with visitors being led upward in contemplation towards the sculpture and inscriptions.
The total cost of the structure will be $400,000, from mostly private donations, with ITT and Kroger among the largest contributors from the private corporate sector. The town of Vinton and Roanoke County have provided public support. The committee still needs approximately $60,000 to complete construction and set up the monument’s endowment fund.
While the committee has weathered economic slowdowns and late construction starts, Chewning is quick to note the tenacity of the group over the past five years. “To have a committee stay together this long through meetings upon meetings is amazing,” she says, “and we won’t stop. We have more money to raise and bricks to sell.”
Personalized bricks located in the “compass” base of the monument in honor of those who have served are available for purchase for $150. There are also other naming opportunities, such as the southern “gangplank” and the columns.
A streak of volunteerism runs throughout the project. Both the Vinton Vision Steering Committee and Capital Campaign Committee are all-volunteer efforts. Four new volunteers just came on as part of a “Poker Run” fundraiser, geared towards biker veterans, to be held in the fall. Local web designer Ronnie Bailey set up the monument’s website gratis while Monty Williams of Video Ventures will be donating his time and equipment to recording the stories of veterans and their loved ones, as part of a video oral history project to be filmed inside the Vinton War Memorial after the dedication ceremony.
Committee member Mary Beth Layman says the inspiration for the recording came from several visitors who had stopped to observe the monument and told Kirtley their stories as he was putting on the finishing touches. After Kirtley joked “I should write a book” from all the stories he had heard, Layman realized there was a “beautiful opportunity” to capture veterans’ memories.
In addition to the video oral history project, there will be a keynote address by Brig. General Alan F. Farrell of VMI along with patriotic music from the Smith Mountain Brass and a National Anthem rendition by Angela Jasper. Parking will be available on-site and seating for over 500 people will be provided (lawn chairs are also encouraged).
For more information on the ceremony, the monument and ways to contribute, visit http://vrcveteransmonument.org or call Mary Beth Layman at 540-983-0613.