Moving in fours, Riverside Military Academy cadets gently picked up giant panels adorned with 7,416 golden stars.
Each star represents a fallen U.S. soldier.
Within a couple of hours on Friday, Aug. 16, the pieces were set up to form the GoldStars Tribute Wall, which displays the names of U.S. veterans who died serving between the Gulf War to present day.
The wall will remain at Paul E. Bolding Post 7 until Monday, Aug. 19. People are encouraged to view it during the American Legion’s 100th birthday celebration from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 17.
Nick Prutu, a senior at Riverside, was one of the first who moved the precious cargo on Friday. As the walls began to tower over the cadets, the meaning began to hit home.
“A lot of kids here are probably going to go into the military eventually,” Prutu said. “It really opened our eyes to see how many people have risked or forfeited their lives.”
Andrew Okingo, who is also a senior, said he had no idea he would be a part of such an important occasion when he woke up Friday morning.
“I personally have not done anything like this before,” he said. “We’re honored to do this.”
Lt. Col. Kenny Payne, Riverside senior Army instructor, said any time the academy’s students can give back to the community, they do it.
In this case, the volunteer opportunity proved extra special.
“I’m a veteran myself,” Payne said. “I’ve had soldiers that have served under me that have passed away doing the right thing. When you look back at the number of soldiers that have died for the right cause, you just can’t do enough.”
While helping the cadets move the pieces of the wall, Payne glanced over at the tribute wall’s moving trailer. It read: “John 15:13, There’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
“That kind of tells it all,” Payne said.
Sam Nicoara, a Marine Corps veteran, drove the wall out to the American Legion on Friday. He built the structure 10 years ago and paid for the materials himself.
Nicoara said the idea to create the memorial wall sparked from a dream.
“Usually my nights are peppered with bad dreams, but one night I dreamed about a memorial,” he said. “I fought the dream for a long time.”
Nicoara finally gave in to starting the task when his brother, a Vietnam War veteran, pushed him to make it happen.
After Nicoara moved from California to Buford, he drove past the American Legion Post 127.
“I told my wife, ‘One day, I’ll have the wall up there,’” Nicoara said.
Today the memorial wall stands at the post in Buford when it’s not traveling.
Brandy Oaks of Buford came out to Paul E. Bolding to help set up the wall on Friday. She is a Gold Star wife, meaning her spouse died while serving in the U.S. military.
Oaks said she greatly appreciates the wall and lends her support for it whenever she can.
“I’ve got quite a few friends on that wall,” she said. “The fact that someone that doesn’t know them at all is helping keep their memory alive, it’s amazing.”
The upkeep and transportation of the GoldStars Tribute Wall is funded through donations. To make a contribution to the memorial wall, call 925-895-3535.
GoldStars Tribute Wall
What: Traveling memorial wall with the names of fallen U.S. soldiers
When: Saturday, Aug. 17 to Monday, Aug. 19
Where: Paul E. Bolding Post 7 — 2324 Riverside Drive, Gainesville