Back in 2003 the late Tom Webb embarked upon a monumental task. Pulling together veterans, friends, business associates and foundations to collect the various veterans’ memorials scattered around the city, his goal was to place them in one central location. This marked the beginning of Saginaw County Veterans Memorial Plaza, which houses monuments from World War 1, World War II, Vietnam and the Korean War.
A design was created by Spicer Group and under the direction of the late Pat Wolgast of Wolgast Construction, these four pods and an additional pod were created called the ‘Flag Pod’. But now an effort is underway to complete this vision by adding a sixth and final pod to recognize veterans who served in conflicts in the Middle East ‑ which given the state of the world today, is an important element to recognize in terms of those we have lost to armed conflict.
This final pod will also pay tribute to those who have suffered the physical and hidden wounds of the war and recognize the often overlooked sacrifices of military families.
With a budget for this final installment of the Plaza estimated to be $125,000, recently I had the good fortune to sit down with Chairman for the Middle East Pod Expansion Committee Ryan Hageness, who was deployed to Fallujah back in 2006, Board Secretary Marilyn Porras, who lost her son in Iraq, and office manager Connie Brown to discuss the kick-off for this much-needed Fundraising endeavor. At present they have raised approximately $12,000 of their goal and requests have gone out to major foundations throughout the region.
Marilyn Porras lost her son when he was killed in Iraq back in 2006 and provided the inspiration for this endeavor. “I am a Blue Star Mother and thought it was time we paid tribute to the soldiers and casualties we’ve experienced through conflicts in the Mideast,” she explains. “We’ve had troops in the Mideast since 1982 in Lebanon, so our Board decided to start public fundraising, but then COVID hit so over the past year this gave us time to sit down and focus on devising ways to achieve our goal. Even without advertising, thus far we’ve received support from the Fordney Club, Yeo & Yeo, and Spence Brothers, who are helping us design our plans. Lamson/Humphreys Law Firm has also given us assistance.”
With a campaign deadline set for November 1st, the group is now hoping to enlist general funding from the public and is reaching out to all Veteran groups, people who have purchased bricks for the previous pods, businesses and foundations in Saginaw County with hopes of enlisting their support.
The Mideast Memorial Pod will be located to the North of the Plaza and the costs of this project include landscaping, lighting, bricks, drainage, and other amenities needed to honor service members who have their life or served in the many Mideast conflicts such as the Lebanese Civil War, Operation Desert Shield-Storm, Operation Restore Hope Somalia, and in Afghanistan and Iraq.
According to Chairman Ryan Hageness, the memorial itself will have a flag on the top with the following wording that he wrote specifically for this memorial: “For people they’d never meet, and places they’d never see, they marched to the den of death, so that others may still live free.”
“I enjoy writing and am a big history geek,” he continues, “so for the Memorial Inscription I was looking for something from Shakespeare or Alfred Lloyd Tennyson, but the Board felt they wanted to go with these words that I came up with because it makes this memorial different.”
“The memorial will feature six stars - one for each branch of the service including the new Space Force - and then we will put something in the monument to make a unique statement about PTSD, which a lot of people come back from these conflicts afflicted with,” he explains. “I have it and pretty much every one from my unit has some for of it. You can’t see the things that you do and not come back with it. Unfortunately, it still carries kind of a stigma in the military. You’re not supposed to talk or cry about it, but we wanted to have some kind of recognition on the monument itself about it.”
“The back of the monument will feature a drawing of a kneeling service member that was created by an artist friend of mine, Joe Pawlowski, who was one of the guys I served with and is a Purple Heart recipient. On December 28, 2006, Joe was wounded and three other Marines in our unit were killed in action,” continues Ryan. “My job was to sort through their gear and if it had blood on it we had to burn it. Needless to say, this was not a fun job, especially when they’re Marines you are friends with. The day after this happens I get Joe’s and the three other Marines’ gear and it’s a big clump of bloody gear and blood, so I’m getting this blood all over me and realized Joe’s blood was on me, too.
“We are always linked by that connection. But now with his drawing featured on the Mideast Memorial Pod and my words also featured on it, he and I will be linked by something positive on this memorial for all time, so in that sense our relationship has come full circle.”
Additionally, the group hopes to establish an Endowment Fund to provide the financial means for the perpetual care and maintenance of the Plaza. It is envisioned that this fund should have a minimum of $2 million in its account with the annual return providing the money needed to operate and maintain the plaza.
Another affordable way you can pay tribute and assist in this endeavor is through purchasing a Plaza Brick. The bricks come in 3 sizes and range in price from $40 (4 x 8”) , $60 (8 x 8”), and $160 (12 x 12”} with a maximum of 13 characters per line including spaces and marks. The bricks are made of baked clay like old Saginaw bricks and the larger bricks are made of granite.
With each of these volunteers so dedicated and passionate about this endeavor, what do they feel is important about this project for the general public to consider when pledging their support.
“As a Gold Star Mother who lost her son in Iraq, I’m not doing this for my son so much as for all the other sons of Saginaw County,” states Marilyn. “We’ve lost approximately 10 soldiers in Saginaw county and are trying to go back and include everyone. Compared to other counties, we have lost quite a few. My mission as a Gold Star Mother is to continue the work of my son by working for different organizations and my job is to serve other vets like Ryan and work in hospitals and food pantries - anything to help vets, especially with the suicide rate like it is now.”
“Actually, I feel lucky in the sense that my colleagues on this project have already done so much leg work,” reflects Ryan. “When I first joined the Board I wanted to help enlist young people into this fundraising drive for the Plaza. My Dad has a brick in that plaza for his service in Vietnam and my Grandfather has one for World War II, so with this Mideast Pod I will also have one. I wanted to make sure this wonderful tribute to those veterans who fought and died could lend my generations’ voice to it.”
“This Mideast pod is long overdue,” he continues. “We still have troops in the Mideast and many don’t even realize it. We’ve been there since 1982 and have the 20th anniversary of 911 coming up this year, so in many ways the Mideast has marked our longest conflict.”
“In my unit alone 22 men were killed in action when I was there back in 2007 and my unit also had a higher casualty rate of any Marine battalion since Vietnam. Plus, this will be a living monument. We’re not done with it because we are still involved in the Mideast and don’t know how many more people will be suffering from those scars of war, whether physical or mental.”
As Office Manager, Connie Brown donates her time because she loves Saginaw. “I’m retired from Covenant Hospital and feel Saginaw has gotten a raw deal for a long time,” she reflects. “My husband was in both the Navy and the Army and I wanted to give back to the community so volunteered my time and energy for six years, took two years off, and now I am back again. I think Saginaw has a gem with this plaza and believe it enlightens and elevates Saginaw to show how much the community really cares. The whole county has benefited from it because it honors people from St. Charles, Buena Vista, Shields, and over our Saginaw County region.”
“Honestly, this group is like a well-oiled machine,” concludes Ryan. “I’m very impressed with their endeavors and am glad I joined on. When I first heard about this pod going up I said to myself there was no way it was going to happen this fast, because I’m used to working for the government. Usually, it takes forever for things like this to happen. But they already had the contacts in place and the fact they’ve been through this type of project before by building the other pods makes all the difference.”
If you would like to support the Fundraising for the Middle East Memorial Pod Campaign you can make your contributions to: Saginaw County Veterans Memorial Plaza, PO Box 1382, Saginaw, MI 48605. Please make checks payable to SCVMP. For more information you can also call 989-752-4000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit their website at www.scvmp.org or their facebook page.
9th February, 2024