“We’re going around the state, we’re going out to Ohio, we’re going to let everyone know it’s here.”

Members of the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum, just south of Arcola, have set a goal of becoming a destination for many outside Fort Wayne, and the local veterans made significant headway toward realizing that goal Aug. 27. With the help of a $100,000 donation from the United Auto Workers Local 2209, the shrine is about one-tenth of the way toward erecting its replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Members of the local UAW presented local veterans with a check Aug. 27, and have committed to donating an additional $50,000 for operating expenses over the next two years. Holly Murphy, president of the Local 2209, said it is “by far” the union’s largest donation. Murphy said the union began working with the shrine members in 2017, seeing that a lot of work was needed to spruce up the O’Day Road property. Since then, members have put in countless volunteer hours, she said.

“Look where they started, and look where they’re at now — and look at their vision,” Murphy said. “We all want to be a part of that for Fort Wayne, to get people here to learn about the history that’s here on this ground.”

Greg Bedford, the shrine and museum’s commander, said the estimated cost to erect the wall is about $1.7 million. With the $150,000 donation, there is about $180,000 currently committed to the project.

“This allows us to start the dig process for the concrete to be poured for the footer … We could not have gotten there without this donation,” Bedford explained. “It’s a great start, and we have a long way to go. … It’s going to get us where we need to be. It’s going to start the fire that’s going to burn and get us to the top of the hill.”

The 8-foot-tall, 360-foot-long wall is identical to the memorial in Washington, D.C., except it’s 80% of the size. It features the inscribed names of the nearly 60,000 American men and women who died in the Vietnam War.

The replica was a traveling exhibit before the Fort Wayne shrine purchased it from American Veterans Traveling Tribute. While the UAW donation will start the beginning phase of installation, other planned projects include adding ADA-compliant pathways, a new parking lot and lighting.

“We are overwhelmed by the generosity of Local 2209 and their many members,” Bedford said. “Their support over the years has been critical to the success of our operation and will continue to be for years to come.”

As part of the purchase agreement, another such wall cannot be permanently erected within a 250-mile radius of the one in Fort Wayne. The closest one is in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. Bedford said he believes the memorial will draw people from the far reaches of that 250-mile radius.

“That’s 44 million people in seven different states — it’s all of Indiana, the vast majority of Ohio, a good chunk of Illinois. It will include Chicago, Milwaukee, a big chunk of the lower part of Michigan, the upper corner of West Virginia and a little bit of Kentucky. … I think it’s going to be a great addition to Fort Wayne. I think when we get done with this part, it will be a destination, and I believe it will be one of the most educational walks of war history on this side of the Mississippi.”

Many of the veterans present during the Aug. 27 donation presentation said it was an emotional day for them. When the wall is erected, it will include the names of 79 Allen County men who died in the Vietnam War.

“This is sacred ground, and a lot of people didn’t know (about it),” Murphy said. “I, for one, didn’t know about it, and my dad who’s a Vietnam veteran didn’t know about it. He’s excited, and they live in Indianapolis, so they’re looking forward to coming here as well — the American Legions there and everybody that he knows. It’s going to be a lot of networking, word of mouth, and now we are on the map officially.”

Murphy said she hopes the 44-acre property will become a place for children to learn about the history of veterans, and to express how important veterans are in our lives.

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