As he described his vision for a “defense of freedom monument garden” at a June 4 town meeting at the Great Falls Community Library last week, retired Marine Col. Pete Hilgartner says he had trouble focusing on what he was saying.
“I have a problem because I’ve been to war too many times,” said Hilgartner, a veteran of the Korean conflict and Vietnam War. “There are not many guys that have been through as many firefights as I have.”
As members of his committee discussed the Defense of Freedom Monument Garden that Hilgartner has proposed in Great Falls, Hilgartner said his mind kept wandering to another June 4, some 36 years ago in Vietnam, where 54 of the men he commanded lay dead in a cornfield in Vin Huey after a brutal firefight.
“They were laid out in a row,” he said. “Rigor mortis had set in. They were loading them on the plane like they were logs; American boys who laid down their lives for their comrades and for us.”
Their families had to be notified, he said, and “It was my job to write and tell them their son was a hero, and how he died.”
Although he had others to help him write the letters, “As I [was] sitting there bleeding inside,” Hilgartner said, “I still had to read them and sign them.”
“That is not easy, and I’m not a writer.”
The memories that filled his thoughts on June 4 are also driving Hilgartner’s effort to establish a “Defense of Freedom” monument garden in Great Falls, he said.
“I think we need to honor those people in our community who lost their lives for us so we can enjoy freedom,” he said.
AFTER AN ANNIVERSARY observance that was held at Village Centre on Sept. 11 last year, Hilgartner said he looked at the green and noticed that one end of it looked the same as another.
He thought a memorial might define it and serve as “a rallying point” for the Great Falls community.
It would be a place where other ceremonies could be held, said Hilgartner, noting that there’s no official observance of Memorial Day or Veterans Day in Great Falls.
His wife, Sarah, and Mike Kearney of Brogue Charities agreed and Hilgartner got others to help.
Now, their committee of 12 includes Bill Ten Eyck, Glen Sjoblom, Paul Gysan, Milburn Sanders and Eleanor Anderson.
They want to establish a site just west of the Great Falls Library. Although other sites were suggested, including the Grange park and The Turner Farm or a triangle of land near the 7-Eleven at Walker Road and Georgetown Pike, it offers the best access and view, he said.
The Fairfax County Library Board is now considering the proposal, said its Dranesville District representative, Roger Sudduth.
“We had a motion in last month’s board meeting to consider the possibility of putting a monument on the library grounds. There was some discussion and the board gave an affirmative vote to considering the idea,” he said.
ALTHOUGH HILGARTNER’S committee had hoped to take the site proposal to the board for a vote on June 11, there were too many obstacles, Sudduth said. The board meets next on July 9 and then takes a recess until September.
Library Director Sam Clay has met with other county agencies, and “we are gradually working through the issues involved,” he said.
The likely location for the monument and garden was shifted a little to the west so it won’t encroach on the area where the library could one day be expanded.
It also must stay clear of the existing septic field.
But the board won’t consider what the design looks like, Sudduth said. “I am not part of that,” he said. “That’s the committee.”
“The board is willing to consider a site. We don’t have the understanding written out as to what the monument is going to be.” said Sudduth.
A model of the monument that has been proposed by the Defense of Freedom committee is now on display in the lobby of the library, Sudduth said, calling it “a very measured” initial design of that concept.
He said the board is working now to establish “how do we specify the content, style and manner to be sure we don’t end up with a series of billboards advertising ‘Brillo.’”
“I think it’s all sort of nascent. These are all ideas. People put a lot of things in the air, to see what the reaction is.”
Sudduth said library officials have asked the committee for specifications for state and national monuments such as the one they have in mind.
The board will need to craft a “memorandum of understanding” with the entity that will take responsibility for the memorial, he said.
Evaluating the town meeting later, Dranesville Supervisor Stuart Mendelsohn called it “a typical Great Falls meeting.”
“My take on it was that there seemed to be consensus to do a memorial and consensus on a site in the general vicinity of the library,” Mendelsohn said. “There seems to be a lot of discussion on what ought to be there.
“My sense is they are going to go back and let everybody give us some ideas,” he said.
The site is large enough to stage an observance of the anniversary of Sept. 11, such as one that was held at the Village Centre last year, Mendelsohn said. “There is plenty of room for a gathering there.”
Some people said they prefer the idea of a rock “as big as a Volkswagen” to a polished black granite monument, four by six feet in size, that has been proposed. An outline map of the United States would be below it, in black unpolished granite, with the state of Virginia outlined in relief, in white.
“DEFENSE AND FREEDOM has a war-like tone to it,” said Robin Rentsch of the Great Falls Trailblazers, suggesting the monument emphasize “service as opposed to war.”
Great Falls architect Bob Mobley said he would like to submit a design for consideration.
Despite some confusion over whether the names of people who have died in defense of the country will be added to the monument later, Hilgartner said that won't happen “on my watch.”
Milburn Sanders said his research has resulted in 12 names from the Civil War, six from World War II and six from Sept. 11, 2001.
The committee has proposed that they be recorded in a book in a place of honor in the library, perhaps overlooking the monument, so pages could be added later.
“This service memorial should be for all past conflicts, present and future,” said Great Falls resident Sam Rentsch, and should allow for names to be added “in perpetuity.”
Dentist Ralph Lazaro described how he has watched the land behind his office, the professional center in Great Falls, as it acquired a soccer field and the library was built, wondering what use would be made of the rest of the open space. With a memorial, it would seem complete, he said.