NEILLSVILLE — Veterans and their families regularly drive from all over Wisconsin to attend events at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park.
In the event of a rainstorm, park officials must send people home because they don’t have enough space to host a large indoor gathering.
It’s a heartbreaking scenario that Highground executive director Chris Pettis hopes to avoid by building a visitor and welcome center at the 155-acre park just west of Neillsville.
The proposed center, which would include meeting space, a museum, gift shop, chapel and library, is one of the key goals park officials hope to accomplish with the help of a $4 million capital campaign they plan to launch next week.
The campaign, called The Highground Rising, seeks to raise the money to pay for the $2.5 million center, expand mental health services for veterans, enhance Americans with Disabilities Act compliance throughout the park and pay off The Highground’s $450,000 mortgage to give it long-term financial stability. A kickoff event is planned Thursday, April 8, in Osseo.
“We’re trying to reach as many people as we can in as many ways as we can,” said Highground board member Steve Maddox of Chippewa Falls.
When the park was dedicated in 1988, organizers thought it was just going to be a place honoring Vietnam veterans, but it’s turned into a facility for veterans of all wars and their families.
“The Highground has come a long way since its inception and become more than any of us dreamed when we started,” said Maddox, a Vietnam veteran who has been involved with The Highground since 1988.
Still, the more people the park serves — an estimated 225,000 visitors per year — the more need for services park officials see.
“We haven’t run out of need and we haven’t run out of veterans, but what we have run out of is space,” Maddox said. “I’d say this expansion is probably 10 years overdue. We’ve reached the point that it’s a critical need.”
The new visitor center would end the facility’s weather dependency and open the possibility of dramatically expanding offerings in winter months.
“Our goal is to be able to host a 150-person indoor event,” Pettis said, noting that the building also would provide space for veterans organizations to hold meetings and for veterans to relax, reflect and find private space to talk to other veterans who understand what they’ve been through.
Leaders of the capital campaign have set a goal of raising $2.5 million by the end of October, which would enable them to start construction on the 12,000-square-foot visitor center next spring. They hope to raise the remainder within five years.
Perhaps most importantly, the project would allow the park to expand suicide-prevention efforts and other mental health services to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or other post-war trauma, Pettis said.
“The need is definitely out there, especially in rural Wisconsin,” he said.
The park also has collected a vast number of artifacts that can’t be displayed properly in the current facility. That would change, Pettis said, with a larger museum space.
The Highground, whose mission is to “honor, educate and heal” veterans, families and all who visit, is the nation’s largest manned veterans park, Pettis said, explaining that volunteer porch greeters welcome guests, ask them if they are veterans and thank them for their service if they are. The greeters also provide information about the park and make themselves available to veterans who want to talk about their time in the military.
“We’re open 365 days a year, and somebody is on site 361 of those days,” Pettis said. “That’s what sets us apart from other veterans memorials.”
The complex, which includes 295-acre Camp Victory about 18 miles north of the park, also offers several miles of hiking trails in a rural setting that Maddox described as “breathtakingly beautiful.”
“It’s not someplace you visit. It’s someplace you experience,” Maddox said, adding that “every memorial has its own personality and its own way of talking to you.”
He characterized The Highground as “the best-kept secret in Wisconsin,” but one he hopes more people learn about and use.
Despite their obvious love for the park and its mission, Maddox and Pettis agreed the proposed expansion will help it provide even better service to those who served.