When the Rock Creek Vietnam Veterans began collecting the names of local veterans for a memorial in Gainesville’s veterans park, they ran into a problem.
Some veterans didn’t know where to find the little park tucked into a shady corridor at the corner of West Academy Street and Northside Drive.
Three years ago, said veteran Jerry Peck, the group began building its brick memorial to honor Hall County veterans. Red bricks in the Rock Creek Veterans Park carry the name, rank, service and war of local veterans.
“As we were doing the bricks — trying to get people to do this — a lot of the guys had never heard of this park,” Peck said on Saturday. “We just couldn’t believe that.”
So the group pondered another project for the park: a welcome arch. Once planning began in earnest, the project took only 13 months.
The Rock Creek group along with other veterans, the city of Gainesville and others celebrated the park’s new entrance arch Saturday.
The $24,050 project began in May 2016, and was mostly funded by donations collected by the Rock Creek Vietnam Veterans. The city donated $10,000, according to Peck.
“The community has been great,” Peck said, noting that two marble plaques sit at the front of the park with the names of those who gave donations of more than $1,000 for the work.
“These guys need to be recognized. All veterans need to be recognized,” Peck said.
Fellow Rock Creek Vietnam veteran Larry Martin said the park and its new arch is the group’s gift to Gainesville.
“This is all we’ve got to leave behind: our heritage — the veterans’ heritage,” Martin said. “It’s kind of like this is our baby. This is our park. It’s our family member, in a way. We think a lot of this place.”
The ribbon-cutting featured speaker Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, who said it was fitting the event took place between Memorial Day, which recognizes those who have died in service, and Veterans Day, which commemorates all veterans.
The event coincided with a brick laying by brothers Rodney and Randey Presley, who were remembering their late father, Army soldier and Vietnam War veteran John Presley.
After laying his name among the hundreds of others representing the veterans of Hall County, Rodney Presley said his father was cremated and had neither plot nor monument.
“Having this right here, somewhere that his name is placed in the community that we grew up in, just really means so much more — having his name etched there saying he was a part of this community and that he served,” Presley said in the park Saturday.
The welcome arch and the park itself meant different things to different people on Saturday.
“My dad was in World War II. I wish he had been here where he could see this. Just to honor the veterans a little bit — most of them are shy; they don’t want to hear all of that,” said Peck. “But it’s just about them. It’s not about what war they fought in or where they fought, it’s just about, ‘You served your country, and we appreciate it.’”
For Presley, the park is a reminder of “where we came from and what we’re about. It means people actually fought for this country to uphold the values of what we stand for — fighting for our freedom, fighting to protect us. It means so much for us to have a place to come to remember those people and to honor those people. If it weren’t for them, who knows?”
For Martin, the park serves as a lesson for Gainesville — especially its youth.
“It’s a history lesson,” he said. “They come in here with school groups, and they can see the names and ask questions. I’ve seen children in here with teachers taking class trips. I think it’s just an education about our children from World War I all the way to what’s going on today.”
Others during the event talked about the need for a place of meditation and peace. With its sweeping concrete path, bamboo garden, shade and reflective marble monuments, Gainesville has it in the Rock Creek Veterans Park.
“It’s a beautiful place, you’ve got to admit,” Martin said.