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Why has this patriotic and long-overdue effort had so many stumbling blocks?

Sep 25, 2014

Two months ago, I told the story of a Vietnam veterans’ group in Detroit that has been fighting for recognition for all veterans of all wars for years. Vietnam Veterans of America, Detroit Chapter 9, has been a force in Detroit for many years.

They have reached out to help homeless and messed-up veterans. They got an annual Veterans Day parade started again. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve let veterans of our newer conflicts know they were appreciated and welcomed.

They’ve also had a dream. They’ve wanted to build a Veterans memorial park open to anyone, which would commemorate all of America’s conflicts. I’ve seen the design; it is not overly militaristic, it doesn’t glorify combat. It mostly tells the story of our nation’s military history, and honors those who helped make freedom possible.

But for years, the veterans have been shown little respect by the city of Detroit. Originally, they wanted to build their park in a large vacant lot on Woodward Avenue, and at least one mayor told them that would be fine. The veterans cleaned it up, drove off the junkies, paid an architect to design a plan.

Then another mayor gave it to his buddies to park cars on instead. Later, Detroit City Council told the veterans they should consider Gabriel Richard Park on the Detroit River.

The veterans thought that was great. They met with city departments, went through endless meetings, and spent thousands to modify their design. Last fall, they got the green light to go ahead. Alicia Minter, the city recreation director, gave it to them in writing. But then, suddenly, she stopped returning their calls. They heard rumors that the Detroit Riverfront Conservancy opposed their park. Finally, one of them got Minter on the phone in March.

“It isn’t happening,” she told them. She suggested they move to an abandoned, out-of-the-way park. They visited it, and found no places to park and a broken sewer.

Last week, the veterans saw in the papers that the place where they wanted to put their park was instead going to be given to a coalition of bird-watching groups.

“Looks like the city feels that birds are more important than our servicemen and women,” Mike Sand, a former chapter president, wrote to me. Another veteran wryly added, “guess that establishes where we fit in the pecking order.”

What surprises me is that the veterans aren’t more angry. However, if you survived Vietnam, it makes no sense to let a bunch of petty bureaucrats get to you. This evening, the vets may finally get a chance to talk to Mayor Mike Duggan. The mayor is holding a district community meeting in a church on Detroit’s East Side.

The veterans intend to have as many of their troops there as possible. They don’t want a confrontation or to stage something for the cameras. They simply want, Sand said, to “find out why this patriotic and long overdue effort has had so many stumbling blocks.”

Sand told me when Duggan was running for office, he met with the veterans and promised them his support.

They wonder what happened to that. It will be interesting to see if they get any answers.

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.