By Keysha Drexel
On Nov. 11, as part of the Patriotic Tribute at Alabama Veterans Memorial Park in Vestavia Hills, four former soldiers from Over the Mountain will come together to honor each other and all who have served their country in the military.
The men will take part in the park’s StepStones Ceremony, where bricks inscribed with veterans’ names are placed on a walkway encircling an American flag. The flag on the park’s American Flag Plaza is so tall, it can be seen from Interstate 459.
Earlier this year, Thomas Nequette of Hoover, a former captain in the U.S. Marines, was honored by his lifelong friend and fellow military veteran Dr. Robert Sciacca, also of Hoover.
Dr. Greg Umphrey of Crestline, a former captain in the U.S. Army, will be honored with a brick at the StepStone memorial Nov. 11 by Dr. Kent Palcanis of Forest Park, who served in the U.S. Air Force.
Thomas said to be honored with a StepStone brick was a defining moment for him. He said for many veterans, the StepStones and other such memorials mean more to them than their tombstones do.
“Very few people will visit your tombstone–maybe your family every once in a while–but with a tribute like this, you know you are being honored alongside so many other veterans, so many other people who served their country. It’s something I hope my grandkids’ grandkids can see and think about,” he said.
To have the StepStone dedicated to him by his lifelong friend made the moment even more special, Thomas said.
“It meant something special because I’ve known Rob since we were in high school together in Wisconsin,” Thomas said. “He knows me, knows that I proudly served my country and all that I experienced in the military, so coming from him, it was an incredible honor.”
Thomas was a helicopter pilot during Vietnam, and Robert also served in Vietnam. Their friendship has spanned states, continents and several years.
“After high school in Wisconsin, I went to college to play football, and Tom went into the military. I got my college degree on the same day I got my 1-A notice, and then I was off to Vietnam, too” Robert said. The 1-A notice was kind of like a draft notice, Robert said.
Robert and Thomas lost touch for about 13 years but reconnected when Thomas ran into Robert’s identical twin brother, who told him Robert was in medical school at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
“We got together and it took about 15 minutes for us to catch up on those 13 years, and it was like we had never been apart at all,” Robert said.
Through the years, the men and their families have spent a lot of time together, sharing Christmases, birthdays and other special occasions together.
“We are all like family,” Thomas said.
That strong bond, Thomas said, is not unusual for people who have served in the military. He said there is a brotherhood among military veterans.
“I own my own business, and when I’m interviewing people for jobs, I can spot the military guys right away,” he said. “It’s just a look you know, how they answer and how they act. We can spot each other a mile away.”
That brotherhood is forged, Thomas said, through knowing that not very many people in the world can relate to the kind of experiences you go through during combat.
“You come home and you talk about some things with your friends, but most of things, you keep to yourself,” he said. “And the only people who really know what it was like are the people who have been through the same thing.”
That’s why Thomas and Robert said they think it is important to have memorials like the StepStones.
“I have bricks for so many of my family members who served, for my best friends who served, because as people are walking past and reading these names on the bricks, these veterans are leaving their mark, and that’s important,” Robert said. “I hope people will think about the reason they are able to walk out on this beautiful path in the woods under that huge American flag. It’s because of the sacrifices of the people listed on those bricks.”
Robert said as a Vietnam veteran, he is painfully aware that soldiers from his generation didn’t get the warm homecoming and tickertape parades the veterans of earlier wars received when they came home.
“I know what it felt like then, and I think today it’s even more important that we recognize these young soldiers who are doing multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and who really not getting the honor they deserve for their service,” Robert said.
As a veteran who served in Iraq in 2002, Greg said he feels like the nation’s recent conflicts have “been fought behind a curtain.”
Greg said most people don’t take the time to find out what’s going on with the wars in the Middle East because they don’t feel a connection.
“They are not being asked to give up anything for these wars. Nothing’s being rationed. Nothing’s being taken away from the average American citizen, so they’re not affected by it and they don’t think about it,” he said.
Greg said while the general public may have forgotten about the young soldiers fighting in the Middle East, veterans of other wars and conflicts have not.
“I remember when I came home from Iraq, it was such a touching moment to be met at the airport by the veterans from other generations,” Greg said. “It gave me the feeling that maybe what we had done was appreciated by someone.”
Greg said he thinks there’s a special bond between Vietnam veterans and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“In all of those cases, there’s been no real closure to the conflict,” he said. “There wasn’t one big enemy, one big country we were going up against in those wars. It was more about fighting an ideology,” he said.
Robert said he thinks Vietnam veterans are keen to make sure the young veterans returning from today’s wars don’t get the same treatment he and his fellow soldiers received when they came home from Vietnam.
“We lived that lesson and don’t want to see it happen again,” he said.
Kent said he decided to honor Greg at the StepStone ceremony because he feels it’s important to make sure veterans of all wars are honored and remembered through the generations.
“What we want to do here with the StepStones is create something that starts a conversation, that gets people thinking about and talking about the sacrifices the men and women of the military have made and make every day so that we can enjoy the freedom that we do in this country,” Kent said.
Kent said he thinks the country needs to be brought together in a lasting way.
“When 9/11 happened, it galvanized us for a little while, but it didn’t last,” he said.
Thomas said he, too, thinks the country needs to come together and celebrate its heritage and history.
“We really need to instill in our children information on who they are. They are Americans and they should be proud of that,” he said.
Robert said that the more people who visit the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park and see the 11,000 names of Alabamians lost to war, the better the sacrifices can be understood and appreciated.
And that’s why the Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation was started, said Lulu Richardson, a member of the foundation’s board of directors and coordinator of the StepStone ceremony. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that constructed the park and maintains it.
“The Alabama Veterans Memorial Foundation was created to help remember our veterans and help educate young people about war, peace and civic responsibility,” she said.
The 22-acre woodland park adjacent to Interstate 459 was dedicated in 2001. The park has a 1,000-foot wooded trail that leads to the American Flag Plaza and the Memorial Plaza.
The American Flag Plaza features the large American flag ringed with more than 500 brick pavers honoring veterans, both living and dead, from many states and all branches of the military. The StepStone pavers can be purchased to honor veterans with dedication ceremonies
either on Memorial Day or Veterans Day.
At the end of the trail, visitors come to the Memorial Plaza, which features 36 free-standing columns that honor Alabama’s heroes, including citations of the state’s 23 Medal of Honor recipients.
Embedded in the columns are castings featuring the work of Alabama artists as they depict scenes of war and peace.
The Hall of Honor in the Memorial Plaza lists on its towering walls the names of the 11,000 Alabamians who were killed in wars or military conflicts since 1900.
The foundation sponsored a drawing this year to present five StepStones at no charge. The five veterans who will be honored by this part of the program are Jon A. Doolittle Sr., U.S. Marines; Gary W. Gilbert, U.S. Army; Richard A. McKay, U.S. Air Force; H. Cecil Miller Jr., U.S. Army; and David W. Riley, U.S. Coast Guard.