The original idea, hatched in 2001 at Post 341 in Bella Vista, Ark., was simple enough: a granite wall of honor commemorating veterans from all branches of service, from all American wars since 1776, in the style of a similar monument in Mountain Home, Ark.
It would take $700,000 and more than a decade, but this idea would be realized several-fold.
Leonard Eisert's brother had helped the project in Mountain Home and told Eisert about the veterans' council they had formed. A team of seven septuagenarians representing the local American Legion and VFW came together to construct a non-profit that would work solely on this project, the Veterans Council of Northwest Arkansas. That team included Eisert, Bert Schindler, Art Leu, Richard LaBrie, Les Glader, Robert Johnson and Vernon Watten. Just assembling the 501(c)3 took two years.
Thankfully, Eisert said, one of the founding members was retired architect Watten.
"I never realized that Vern would design it so special," he said. The monument that inspired the Veterans Wall of Honor is a tidy-looking granite wall on the edge of a local park. Watten designed several walls in concentric circles, with benches, more than 4,500 granite tablets honoring veterans, a 36-foot timeline of American military history with 67 brass plaques, 27 plaques honoring the U.S. presidents who served in the military, a central fountain, a grand entryway, the Preamble, military seals, benches and 18 flags. The circular design stemmed from two military themes: protection from the enemy as well as togetherness.
Watten built two plexiglass models of the design, and the Veterans Council got to work. They set up shop in front of Walmarts and grocery stores, at church groups and in banks, at schools and even at a funeral home. Each time, they'd bring one of the models, pass out brochures and accept donations for memorial granite tablets to go in the walls.
"It was fun doing that, too," Eisert said. It created interest in the memorial itself, of course, but also in the local American Legion and VFW. Eisert said Post 341's membership saw a boost and has one of the highest memberships in the state.
Touring was also essential to raising the funds. About half of the $700,000 needed was raised by selling granite tablets and other memorabilia. The other half came from individual donors and local businesses.
Eisert encouraged other Legion posts to consider constructing such a monument. Though it's a massive undertaking, it creates lots of patriotism and grows membership. The Legion was able to get more involved in its community, too. He said the Auxiliaries, the VFW, the donors, Walmart and even the local garden club all partnered to power Watten's vision.
Eisert's main advice for those interested in such a project: "Start early."
After more than a decade of planning, fundraising and construction, the Wall of Honor was dedicated in 2012. Watten, now deceased, lived to see it open. His funeral services were held at the memorial.
Eisert said it's one of the area's two biggest attractions. Schools, church groups and visitors come to enjoy it and celebrate veterans. He gives tours of the memorial, including tours to school groups. "I guess I don't want to retire."
"Just by having a memorial there, it increased the awareness of the patriotism of the whole area," Eisert said. "The biggest aspect is giving the tours. I enjoy the tours and people coming. I think the world should see what we have. I think it's really honoring all our people who served in the armed forces. It's a place to honor our people."
At least 12 events are held there annually, Eisert said, with the largest being the Veterans Day ceremony, which is put on by Legion Post 341 and assisted by VFW Post 9063.
The memorial is a quiet place set on about an acre and a half of land overlooking a lake near the VFW, which deeded the nonprofit the land for $1.
"Some people come there just to reflect. They have somebody on the wall. It's not a church, but it's a church without ceiling."
For more information, visit the website: http://www.veteransmonumentbellavistaar.com/