Orlando Sentinel – Veterans Memorial

Orlando Sentinel – May 29, 2011

By Jon Busdeker

A rendering shows the Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park project at Lake Nona, set to break ground in January.

In the shadow of the Orlando VA Medical Center taking shape at Lake Nona, a 4-by-8-foot red, white and blue banner announces: “Future Site of Veterans Memorial Park.”

For Jerry Pierce, a Vietnam War-era veteran, the sign is a promise that he won’t stop fighting.

For almost five years, the Central Florida Veterans Memorial Park Foundation led by Pierce has been working to build the region’s largest veterans memorial next to the hospital at the Medical City in southeast Orange County.

Construction of the $1.5 million memorial, carved with the names of veterans who died while serving, had been scheduled to start this past November and be completed by Memorial Day. But Pierce said those plans changed when the foundation’s all-volunteer board realized that raising the money would be more complicated than thought.

Now, with a professional fundraiser on board, the foundation plans to start construction in January and to finish by the time the hospital opens in October 2012. The group has raised about $400,000 in cash and pledges of the $1 million needed to break ground. An additional $500,000 will be needed to complete the work.

The project has also gained a high-profile champion: retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who led the reconstruction of Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein and now lives in Windermere. Gardner, the campaign’s honorary chairman, is using his military contacts to help raise money.

“Anything I can do for veterans, I do it,” Gardner said.

The memorial park would be built on a lakefront site provided by the Lake Nona Land Co. Designed without charge by Rogers, Lovelock & Fritz of Winter Park, it would include an amphitheater for community events, an archway that reads “For All Who Have Fallen” and a set of light-gray granite panels inscribed with the names of Central Florida soldiers.

Pierce expects that more than 3,000 names dating back to World War I will be carved into the slabs. The memorial would honor all veterans from Central Florida who died while in military service, though not necessarily in combat.

One feature missing from the revised design of the memorial is an eternal flame, scrapped to save money. It will be replaced by a less-expensive waterfall, Pierce said.

“This is more than a memorial,” said Pierce, who ran a restaurant-equipment business for more than 25 years. He describes it as a place to remember and mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice. And to ensure that future generations can use the memorial, the foundation also hopes to raise another $1.5 million as an endowment for the park’s upkeep.

Tim Liezert, director of the VA medical center, said the memorial will provide a therapeutic benefit to veterans and their families.

“The memorial, with its dignity and serenity, will create the opportunity for powerful personal-healing experiences for many veterans, similar to that experienced by veterans visiting national memorials in Washington, D.C.,” Liezert wrote in an email.

The $665 million, 65-acre VA medical center will include a 134-bed hospital, a nursing home and a rehabilitation center. While the center is under construction, the foundation will continue to raise money. Pierce and the other members of the foundation have been making presentations to civic groups, city leaders, military organizations and anyone else who might donate, though Pierce said the foundation won’t be seeking government money.

Jim Donovan, a fundraising consultant hired by the foundation in May 2010, said the emphasis now is on major gifts of $10,000 and above. Donovan said 80 percent of a campaign’s funds typically come from 20 percent of the donors.

And even in a down economy, the foundation has found donors. During the past year, it has received a $10,000 check from Ross Perot Jr. — a Dallas real-estate mogul and son of the one-time presidential candidate — along with $50,000 grants from the Edyth Bush Charitable Foundation and the Central Florida Auto Dealers Association.

“There is plenty of money out there,” Donovan said.

The remaining money will likely come in as the groundbreaking nears, Donovan said. Donors like to see progress before opening their wallets, he added.

Veterans also have contributed. Pierce said there’s a sense of camaraderie and pride that compels them to donate to the memorial.

“I don’t care how much I don’t have, I’m going to help” is something Pierce said he hears a lot.

Alan Starling, president of Starling Chevrolet, which has three dealerships in Central Florida, is personally matching donations, up to a total of $50,000. Starling, who served during the Vietnam War, said the community needs to remember its veterans. Building a memorial, he said, is “the least we can do.”

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