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These veterans deserve some recognition, but the City of Detroit ignores them

Jack Lessenberry

Mike Sand didn’t technically serve in Vietnam. But he might as well have. He was stationed with a tactical fighter group in Thailand where he serviced the planes and cleaned the messes out of the cockpits of the men who fought and died in the skies.

Paul Palazzollo did serve on the ground, for perhaps the two most intense years of the war. He earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and two purple hearts. But he doesn’t talk much about what he did. Few of his buddies do either. 

They’d rather talk about their dream, which is a Memorial Park commemorating all veterans of all wars, a peaceful place to relax, have programs, and learn about our history. 

They’ve been working on this for more than a dozen years. They’ve got an elegant design, they’ve got the will, they’ve got a fair amount of money and are sure they can get the rest.  

But what they can’t get is the time of day from the City of Detroit.  “We want to give them a park,” said Charlie Merz, himself a Vietnam-era veteran and a well-known Detroit architect who specializes in overseeing projects under construction.

“We’ll pay for it, set up a fund to maintain it. But we can’t get a commitment, and this is damned frustrating,” he told me yesterday. 

These vets have reason to be frustrated.  Years ago, a core group of them started a now nationally known group, the Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9.

They had a motto: Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.

They took over an abandoned restaurant on Woodward Avenue and the vacant lot next door. They cleaned up the place. Paul drove away the junkies and hookers with a baseball bat. They had a motto: Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another. They reached out to veterans of older and newer wars, and gained a following. 

They had a motto: Never again shall one generation of veterans abandon another.

One Detroit mayor promised they could build their park on the lot next door. Then Kwame Kilpatrick promised the lot to someone else. Eventually, however, the veterans had a windfall. Mike Ilitch needed their building for his new hockey arena.

He is paying them two and a half million for it.

They scaled down plans for their memorial. The city was receptive to the idea of them building it in Gabriel Richard Park near Belle Isle. Last November, Alicia Minter, the city recreation director, sent them a letter offering the city’s “approval and support.”  But then, nothing. They couldn’t get their calls returned – and Minter wouldn’t call me back either. 

Finally, a few months ago, she supposedly told them they should build their memorial in a basically deserted and weed-choked park where there is little traffic.  

Mike Sand, who recently retired after a long career as a high school teacher, noted “we don’t have that much time left.”

I’ve studied their plan; it is, frankly, a beautiful walk through the history of America’s wars, something to help people remember Detroit as the Arsenal of Democracy.  

There are hundreds of thousands of veterans out there, and they vote. If I were Mayor Mike Duggan, I’d meet with these folks, who are calm, reasonable and frankly heroic, as soon as I could. 

They really deserve no less. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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