In a veterans memorial tucked just behind the Highland County YMCA at Liberty Park in Hillsboro, American flags wave with the wind, looking over stone World War II and Vietnam War monuments and paver stones bearing the names of local service members. Statuettes of soldiers — kneeling, carrying fallen comrades, petting German shepherds — dot the flowerbeds surrounding the flagpoles. Under a dimming afternoon sky with only the sound of the flags’ halyards knocking against their poles in a chilly late-November breeze, it is a peaceful place.
A few years ago, the veterans memorial at Liberty Park was an entirely different place: the grass was tall, food wrappers littered the site, and other visitors parked vehicles and set up tents on the paver stones. Its transformation began when Hillsboro resident Rick Tipton visited the site around Memorial Day four years ago.
“To me, it needed to be done better,” Tipton said. “[The veterans] deserved better.”
Tipton later attended a Hillsboro City Council meeting and asked then-mayor Drew Hastings and then-safety and service director Mel McKenzie for permission to mow the grass at the memorial. During the following council meeting, city officials asked if Tipton would be interested in maintaining the memorial.
“I asked if I could do some things to protect it, and they said, ‘Yeah, but the city can’t really help you monetarily.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s fine. The wife and I will take care of it as long as you give us permission,’” Tipton said.
Hastings and McKenzie also granted Tipton complete creative control of the memorial, and since 2016, Tipton and his wife have used their own resources to protect and develop the memorial into a site Tipton feels honors veterans and current service members. As one of the couple’s first steps to protect the site, they installed white chains around the memorial to both distinguish the site and to protect the monuments.
“I got tired of people parking on it,” Tipton said. “People were setting up bouncy houses over there. They would drive across the mulch bed to park on there, set up tents and stuff by the pavilion. There are 30 acres there, but they would set their tents up on the memorial site. It just bothered me.”
Tipton and his wife have also gradually added statuettes, memorial trees, shrubbery, and crosses with red, white and blue artificial flowers.
The current city administration allowed Tipton to continue to maintain the site when mayor Justin Harsha and safety and service director Brianne Abbott took office in January. In March, Abbott offered Tipton a position as a part-time caretaker for Hillsboro’s parks, which Tipton accepted. However, he turned down Abbott’s offer to include the maintenance of the veterans memorial at Liberty Park in his duties as caretaker.
“I don’t want paid for this,” Tipton said. “I started this on my own, and I want to continue this on my own time. I do this because my heart tells me to.”
For Tipton, caring for the memorial goes deeper than only remembering and respecting veterans’ sacrifices. One of Tipton’s cousins was drafted for the Vietnam War, after which three more of Tipton’s cousins volunteered. Tipton, however, was too young to serve.
“[The memorial is] my way to give back for what I didn’t get to give to the Vietnam vets,” Tipton said. “It bothers me every day that I couldn’t contribute to what they did. I know some of those guys, and I see how their health is and what they went through and the disrespect they got. They did what they were called upon to do, and the country didn’t appreciate it.”
The public’s reaction to the Vietnam War negatively affected the mental well-being of many veterans, including one of Tipton’s cousins.
“He was sitting at a traffic light in Jamestown, and people told him they couldn’t respect him because he killed women and children,” Tipton said. “He committed suicide right there at the traffic light. He’d been home a week. I just thought that that was senseless — for people to treat them like that.”
More recently, Tipton has also witnessed the long-term effects that military service has had on his friends, many of whom served in Vietnam. The least he can do, he feels, is honor their sacrifices.
“Each time I go up there, I speak to [the veterans],” Tipton said. “I tell them that I appreciate the fact that they let me take care of the memorial, that I hope they appreciate it, that I do it for them, especially the Vietnam vets. People probably think I’m crazy because I sit up there and talk. It’s just my way of coming to peace with myself, I guess.”
Though Family Farm and Home and Lowe’s in Hillsboro have donated materials to Tipton’s efforts, Tipton and his wife pay for a majority of the maintenance and improvement costs on their own.
Those who would like to donate to the veterans memorial should submit donations in person or to the dropbox at the city of Hillsboro’s office, located at 130 N. High St., according to city auditor Alex Butler.
Donations may be cash, check, money order, or cashier’s check and should be made payable to the city of Hillsboro. Donors should indicate that the city should use the donations for the veterans memorial at Liberty Park.
The veterans memorial is located behind the Highland County YMCA, which is located at 201 Diamond Dr. in Hillsboro.
Reach McKenzie Caldwell at 937-402-2570.