Santa Rosa County Veterans Memorial manager Ralph Nesenson looks over one the park's recently vandalized memorials. The 'Wall of Tears' monument was vandalized to the point where it will no longer weep, said Nesenson. (Tony Giberson / Pensacola News Journal)
The vandalizing of military veterans’ memorials in Milton and Pensacola during the past year or so is prompting the stewards of those monuments to plan security measures, but they’re saddened at the need to do so.
“You know what surprises me about the damage in Milton is that this is one of the most patriotic places anywhere,” said Ralph Nesenson, a retired Navy chief petty officer who is now manager of the Santa Rosa County Veterans Memorial. “It bothers me that anyone would show disrespect for a place of honor.”
Still, Nesenson and county officials are arranging the installation of a $1,200 security camera system, he said.
The surveillance measure comes after several incidents in recent months that include the theft of lighting fixtures worth an estimated $2,000 that illuminate the granite monument in downtown Milton, and about $300 in damage to the metal spouts on the memorial’s “Wall of Tears,” which has been turned off until they can be replaced.
Adding insult to injury, someone picked July 4, 2013, to steal a $6,000 John Deere cart from the memorial’s storage area, where it was locked and secured with a chain, which the thief cut through. Nesenson used the cart to haul the memorial bricks he sells and inscribes with the names of veterans and donors.
At Veterans Memorial Park in Pensacola, the Purple Heart landmark was overturned and defaced in December and the Marine Corps commemorative bench at the Vietnam Veterans Wall South was destroyed a year earlier.
“What does it say about our community and society? I’m not sure,” said Jack Brown, a veteran Marine Corps jet pilot in the Vietnam War who volunteers as president of the Veterans Memorial Park Foundation of Pensacola. “Every community has its lower sort, those who vandalize, who are good only for tearing down. It is part of the reality of the human condition. However, there is cause for deeper worry when there is no collective sense of regret, of revulsion even, for an act that strikes against respect and remembrance for our honored dead.”
Law enforcement responded to the memorial vandalism in Pensacola and Milton, but leads were scarce and no suspects have been charged. Brown said investigators deserved more help from the public.
“I am disappointed that nobody has come forth with information concerning vandalism in Pensacola and Milton,” Brown said. “Somebody knows who is responsible. How does such an act remain hidden when the heart and soul of a community is injured in such a way?”
In reflection, Brown wondered about the vandals: “We can’t really know what anyone who would do something like this is thinking. If it’s kids, I try to keep a perspective — I went through a destructive period as a young person and was fortunate not to be put in reform school.”
That said, Brown’s foundation is considering the same protective step that the Milton memorial’s stewards are taking: The board will soon examine the possibility of buying a security system.
But buying security equipment with donated funds, normally used for maintenance, improvements and additions, isn’t what Nesenson expected in Milton when several veterans groups and the Santa Rosa County Commission teamed up to chip in about $1 million for the memorial.
Dedicated on Veterans Day 2004, with its black granite markers and inscriptions remembering America’s dead in every American conflict back to the Revolutionary War, the Santa Rosa memorial is intended as an outdoor history lesson in Milton.
The Santa Rosa County public responded, buying about 6,600 inscribed bricks that are placed on the “Walk of Honor.” At $30 each for veterans, and $100 paid by other supporters, the bricks are part of what Nesenson called “a tribute to all veterans that lets people know what has been sacrificed for our freedom.”
For much of the first 10 years of the Milton memorial’s existence, it wasn’t subjected to vandalism, except from occasional skateboarders who marred the commemorative bricks, and a bit of graffiti. But during the past year the monument has been repeatedly targeted.
“I never thought we would have to have a security camera,” said Nesenson.
Retired Army Brig. Gen. Mike Ferguson, a native Pensacolian who volunteers as the Secretary of the Army’s senior civilian aide in this area, said, “My wife and I are major donors at both the Santa Rosa and Escambia veterans memorials. Our belief is that desecration of them or poor care and guarding of them is an affront to those who died, served, or are missing in action.”
In addition to vandalism, Ferguson is dismayed with what he views as a surprising lack of community commitment to the legacy of military service that is underscored in this area’s memorial parks. He wrote in a email response to a reporter’s query: “For a service town, we in Pensacola don’t seem to know or show steady recognition of the heritage those who serve or served have provided us by their dedication.”
To be sure, there have been instances around the nation of vandalism of military facilities in protest to unpopular wars. But there hasn’t been evidence of a political statement either in the Milton and Pensacola incidents.
Instead, the damage appears wanton and thoughtless, which puzzles Dan Lindemann, a veteran Marine Corps helicopter pilot who was among those who led the fundraising drive to obtain the Marine Aviation Memorial Tower at Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park, dedicated in 2012. “I simply don’t understand vandalism in the first place. My first reaction in hearing about vandalism at places like Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park is sorrow.”
Butch Hansen, a retired Navy submarine captain and Veterans Memorial Park Foundation board member, refuses to “believe that these acts of vandalism are purposeful” but rather “out of ignorance of what these memorials represent.” He expressed hope that ending the destruction can start with educating a range of area residents from young skateboarders to adults “to explain the debt of gratitude they owe to these heroes we honor.”