A new memorial to those who served in and those who never returned from the war in Southeast Asia stands ready to receive visitors just over a hill and behind a Liberty Park shelter house on the north edge of Hillsboro.
The mention of the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial Field of Honor was eluded to briefly during Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony held at the Veterans Memorial in Hillsboro by VFW 9094 Post Commander Rick Wilkin.
“You need to go out and see this,” said Wilkin, himself a Vietnam veteran. “They’re very proud of what it looks like and what it represents.”
He said the creation of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Field was spearheaded by Rick Tipton, the caretaker of a veteran’s memorial at Hillsboro’s Liberty Park.
“Rick took this upon himself because he had seen where people at the memorial itself had been setting on it and eating, and letting kids play on it,” he said. “It wasn’t being kept up nice and he decided on his own to make something of it.”
Three straight lines of newly planted trees stand at attention in tribute to the soldiers they will represent, while at the entrance to the new field of honor kneels a wooden silhouette of a soldier, the butt of his weapon on the ground and his head bowed.
On the other side of the entrance, another wooden silhouette depicts a pair of combat boots containing a lost soldier’s weapon, barrel pointing downward, with his or her combat helmet resting on top of it.
“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Field is for all those that were killed in action or the Vietnam vets who have passed away,” Tipton said. “Their families can call us and we’ll placard a tree for them — my wife makes up the placards — and every spring when they bloom it’ll be a nice way to remember them.”
He said he began taking care of the Liberty Park veteran’s memorial several years ago, and took his push mower to the park and assumed responsibility of maintaining the grounds.
“One thing led to another, and the city gave me a letter saying that the memorial was mine to take care of and to do what I thought needed to be done,” he said.
He and his wife have borne the brunt of providing the funds for maintenance, but he said occasionally a passerby will slip him a $20 or $50 bill to purchase another statuette or materials for the memorial’s upkeep.
“The center row of trees will always bloom in white, while the two outside rows will bloom in red,” he said. “There’s room for 14 more trees, and some of them are weeping cherry, dogwood, redbud and crab apple, and some of the colors may vary as they mature, but they’ll be mostly white and red.”
Affixed to the first tree in the center row is a small plaque that honors one of Highland County’s native sons who didn’t return from Vietnam — Pfc. Mark Hook, who was one month shy of his 19th birthday when he was killed by what was later determined to be friendly fire after being in-country for only a month.
The new park has special meaning for Rick Wilkin’s wife, Shirley, who is Hook’s older sister. She said that though it’s been 53 years since the news of her brother’s death reached her family, sometimes it feels like it happened only yesterday.
“Nineteen sixty-eight was an awful year in our lives,” she said. “That was the year Mark was killed, my Mom and Dad got divorced and sold the farm and auctioned off everything we owned, even the things from our childhood, and even though I was living in Cincinnati at the time, I couldn’t believe all this was happening to us.”
Though her thoughts of that terrible day in 1968 still bring tears to her eyes, it’s the memories of a talented, good-natured and “ornery” boy that make her smile and laugh at their experiences growing up on the farm.
“He was a good-looking boy and sort of resembled Ricky Nelson,” Shirley remembered. “He never had a girlfriend in high school but all the girls loved him, but what they didn’t know was that growing up, he had an ornery side about him and on the farm, we all had our chores to do, but Mark always found a way to get out of working.”
Shirley said she and her older brother Steve always covered for their little brother, which allowed Mark to enjoy his creativity by “piddling around making things” in her father’s tool shed.
“Mark got along well in school. He wasn’t all that smart, and he got into trouble all the time because he was always drawing and doodling, and he loved to write stories — he didn’t care about math, history or geography, but even though he never had an art lesson, Mark was an extraordinary artist.”
She described her brother as having a magnetic personality that projected trustworthiness to child and animal alike, saying that on a dairy farm, Mark took in every stray animal that came across his path. During family gatherings, the younger children would be drawn to him “almost like he was the Pied Piper or something.”
“He wouldn’t even kill a bug,” she said, describing a gentle nature that she thought flew in the face of him becoming a soldier. “It was so ironic that he was like that and then became a soldier in the 101st Airborne Cavalry Division in the infantry.”
The 1967 Hillsboro High School graduate was also quite the singer. Shirley remembered a time after her mother remarried when Mark, her stepfather’s son and her brother Steve, staged an impromptu jam session in a bedroom upstairs.
“We were staying at my stepdads house and his son could play drums like nobody else I’ve ever heard,” she recalled. “He was something like 13 years old at the time, and my brother Steve played guitar and upstairs in that little house across from my bedroom, Mark would join in and sing on the microphone… and they were pretty good!”
To this day, remembering that song her brother sang — “The House of the Rising Sun” — brings back memories of happier times before those dark days when her brother’s body came home from an unpopular war so far away.
To honor a deceased veteran in the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial Field, Tipton suggested families call the Highland County Veterans Service Office at 937-393-8686, adding that he felt returning Vietnam veterans didn’t get the recognition they deserved.
“I don’t feel right charging anyone for this since I feel that it would be taking away from the purpose of what we’re trying to do,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel like we were doing it for the veterans if we charged anything, but if someone wants to donate something to it, that would be fine.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.