By Emily Williams
To say that Hoover resident Mark Davis is involved in veterans’ support would be an understatement. Mark Davis is veterans’ support.
As he walks across a bridge beneath the Veterans Memorial Arbor at Aldridge Gardens, where he has served on the board for more than seven years, visitors pass by while on a jog or walk with friends.
“You know, nobody used to come over here,” he said.
The arbor was just one project he has seen come to fruition in his journey to give back to fellow veterans who are in need or are in need of remembrance.
On Nov. 8, Davis will join fellow veterans and members of the Hoover community at the arbor at 2 p.m. for the city’s annual Thank A Vet Kickoff.
Davis’ own service in the armed forces was instrumental in shaping who he has become. At the age of 19, in 1973, Davis left college and joined the Navy despite his mother’s worries.
He was driven by the example of his father, who served in the Korean War.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “I grew up really quick in the Navy.”
As luck would have it, he was never sent to Vietnam but was stationed in the Caribbean.
“Do you know The Hunt for Red October?” he asked. “I worked on those nuke submarines. I inspected them to make sure they were safe.”
He learned to use ultrasound technology to inspect the welds, vessels and pipes in the subs.
“As soon as we’d finish inspecting, they would go right back out,” Davis said. “We’d be working 24/7 for a week straight to get them set up in order to head back out.”
Since his service concluded in 1979, Davis has used those skills he learned during his military career. He spent time working for Duke Power before eventually making his way to the Southern Company, working on nuclear power plants.
“I’m also the guy that inspected Vulcan and closed down the park,” Davis said.
In the 1990s, the city of Birmingham reached out to Davis and asked him to conduct some ultrasonic testing on a crack found on Vulcan’s left hip and assess its severity.
“The crack was so bad that I took a ruler and stuck it all the way through,” he said. “That 250-pound section was about to fall off, but it was his right arm that closed (the park) down.”
Davis’ desire to act when a good idea presents itself has translated into a life of service for veterans, living and deceased.
It began in 2007, when he and his wife attended a holiday party and left with the opportunity to buy a Corvette.
“My wife and I were looking for a convertible to buy that we could take out on a pretty day, drop the top and ride around,” he said.
In February 2008, after having seen news about the number of soldiers returning to the United States in body bags, he felt the need to take action.
“It just hit me while I was driving,” he said. “Corvettes, ‘vettes,’ for veterans, ‘vets.’”
The idea became the veterans support organization Vettes4Vets, composed of Corvette owners across the southeast.
“Our first event was a car show at Veterans Park,” Davis said.
Through his membership in the Mid-Alabama Corvette Club, Davis was introduced to the track manager of Talladega Superspeedway, leading to the creation of the organization’s annual Track Day. The 10th annual event has been rescheduled for May 29, 2021.
The organization has raised more than $500,000 to date, selling laps around the speedway for $100 each. Those funds are distributed to individuals and non-profit organizations that help veterans, active military personnel and their families in distress or in need.
Fallen Warrior Project
But Vettes4Vets wasn’t enough for Davis. He wanted to do more for the veterans who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Through a partnership with retired Col. Lee Busby of Tuscaloosa, who took up sculpting in his retirement, the Alabama Fallen Warrior Project was created.
The project’s mission is to commission bronze memorial busts of every military member from Alabama killed while on active duty since 9/11. The first sculpture commissioned was of Hoover High School graduate Andrew Hand, an army specialist killed in action in 2010 while serving in Afghanistan.
“We raised about $11,000 in one week to build that bust for him,” Davis said.
Another leg of the project was to fund the creation of the Veterans Memorial Arbor at Aldridge Gardens and adjoining Gateway Pentagon Plaza. The busts of fallen Hoover residents Hand, Ryan Winslow and Thomas Rivers Jr. line the passage from the plaza to the memorial.
The effect the project has had is clearest in the eyes of the fallen warrior’s parents, Davis said. Hand’s mother once told him that she didn’t like going to the National Cemetery to visit her son, that the memorial arbor was a more peaceful place to remember his life.
“She said, ‘I can come out here. I can sit. I can look out over the lake, and I know that my son’s bust is sitting right here,’” Davis said.
Recently, Davis has been working with Busby to create a bust of gardens founder Eddie Aldridge. Before Aldridge’s death in 2018, Davis was able to take him to Tuscaloosa to meet with Busby.
“He was a … veteran,” Davis said. “He was military police from 1953-55 in the Army and served in the Korean War.”
“I wanted to do a full, life-sized bronze of Eddie,” Davis said. “I wanted to have him sitting on a park bench here.” Though Aldridge could be found on a garden banch just about any given Saturday, the full-size representation wasn’t his style.
Instead, a bust of Aldridge has been commissioned. Once complete, it will be one of the first things visitors see when they go to Aldridge Gardens, positioned near the front entrance along with two plaques displaying Aldridge’s story and his mission in founding the gardens.
“I just wanted to do something that would honor him, what he did, both with the gardens and the Alabama Hydrangea Society, which he founded,” Davis said.
It comes down to the dash, he said, the dash that sits between someone’s birth date and the date of their death.
“Within that dash (are) all of the things you did in your life,” Davis said. “Eddie had a really big dash.”
Even a Pandemic Can’t Get in the Way
During the pandemic, Davis hasn’t slowed down a bit.
He took over as president of Vettes4Vets following the retirement of Maj. Gen. David Burford. He also took over as president of Support Our Soldiers, founded by Tom and Charon Rivers in memory of their son, Thomas Rivers Jr. The organization sends care packages overseas to U.S. military personnel on active duty.
“It works out because it creates three legs of support,” Davis said, the monument for those who have died and support for organizations for veterans and active duty military.
In addition, he has been working with Shelby County engineers and will soon meet with the Hoover City Council to present plans for a Veterans Monument at Veterans Park.
The monument would have columns representing each Alabama veteran who has died since 9/11.
“We have had 225 veterans killed since 9/11,” Davis said. “Four were killed in the Pentagon. The first man killed in the war on terror was Michael Spann,” he said. “He graduated from Auburn, so we have his bronze bust down at Auburn University.”
Of the 225 columns, 118 would represent veterans who were killed in action and the rest would represent those who died “unhostile deaths.”
“We will have uplighting at all four corners, so anybody driving up or down Valleydale Road will see this monument when they pass,” Davis said. “Anybody going to Spain Park High School or to any of the sporting events they have over there, they will all see this monument.”
Davis said such monuments inspire remembrance and gratitude in people who see them. But, most importantly, Davis hopes they inspire people to show their support for veterans.
“Everybody has a connection to a veteran,” he said. “You ask people if they served and maybe they haven’t. They may say, ‘No, but my dad did.”
When Veteran’s Day arrives on Nov. 11, Davis’ advice is to go beyond a simple “thank you.”
“What I tell people is that, yes, it’s great to thank people for their service, but take action,” Davis said. “Go get involved with a veterans organization. And if you don’t know of one, call me and I’ll put you in touch with one.”