A Look Inside: The Highground Veterans Memorial Park

Published: Aug. 8, 2022 at 8:23 AM CDT
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) - When “The Highground” a 155-acre park just west of Neillsville was dedicated in 1988, many believed it was just going to be a place to honor Vietnam veterans. Through the years, it has become a facility to veterans of all wars and their families. The Highground’s mission to “honor, educate and heal” veterans.

“Whether you’re a veteran or a non-veteran, there’s still a spiritual and emotional acumen to this park... and it’s rewarding in it’s own way almost every day.”

Chris Pettis, Executive Director of The Highground spent 23 years in the Marine Corps, tours that included deployments to Somalia, The Philippines, Kuwait, and Iraq.

“My goal here is to focus my efforts on the veteran and his family and those that are struggling, emotionally from their time in service whether they deployed or not, there is still a transition period and a lifestyle change that some people have a hard time coping with. And on the other side of that, their biggest support group is their family and they may not know what to say or how to deal with those things and we want to be the bridge to be able to make it easier for them,” says Pettis.

When veterans return home many struggle with PTSD and need time to decompress from combat and deployment. Reintegrating the service member back into everyday life can be challenging.

“People that they knew prior to leaving, they are the same person but we’re not and we don’t, we don’t realize that we’ve changed and the things that we had in common we may not have in common again. When you go to boot camp, they strip your identity, they break everybody down to one level and they build you all up as a team, as a family. And when you come back you don’t necessarily have that sisterhood or brotherhood that you had in the service and you are trying to find that again and you can find that here,” explains Pettis.

The Highground’s Persian Gulf Tribute is a powerful memorial that remembers the Middle East conflicts through the symbolism of a boot print.

“From the top of the hill looking down it looks like a boot print in the sand, that’s what it’s supposed to entail. The barriers all around it are the treads of the boot, inside the boot are four statuaries, the first one here is a battlefield cross. The battlefield cross is an inverted rifle with a helmet on top, combat boots with a folded American flag signifying the loss of a US service member in conflict,” adds Pettis.

Pettis says The Highground offers a place for reflection, for him the opportunity to leave a burden behind.

“For me personally, it’s the fountain of tears located in the meditation garden where it signifies the loss of a soldier and the family, the spouse of the fallen and the look on their face is very solemn and for me I recognize loss of friends whether it be in combat or taking their own life afterwards. And we have many struggles and challenges that we go throughout the day and throughout our lives and each one of those is a hurdle. And sometimes just going down there and looking, some of my problems are nowhere near what this family would have gone through and went through with this loss.”

The Highground has become a destination for veterans and their families for more than three decades. And while the park serves more than 250,000 visitors per year, Pettis hopes to add a welcome center in the near future, a $4 million dollar capital campaign called, The Highground Rising.

“Right now I don’t have any place for anyone to go during inclement weather. If we are having a stone ceremony and have 300 guests, we’re standing out in the rain. But with this new building we are going to have our new museum inside because we have outgrown the one that we have. We have a lot of wonderful families that have donated some pretty nice artifacts that we have to display all the time. Many times we don’t have the room. We are also going to have a theatre room, an inside meeting area so we can show different documentaries that we are working on from Wisconsin veterans that are sharing their stories,” says Pettis.

The sharing of stories that Pettis believes can facilitate healing for veterans and their families.

“Our mission is to honor, educate and heal. And part of that healing process is to be available to those that are having some transitional issues or dealing with loss, grieving, whatever that might be. That is willing to share some of their story and how they were able to recover from it and share that with other veterans that may be going through the same problems, provide them with a path without rocks that other people have stumbled on.”

The Highground Rising Campaign has raised $1.54 million dollars in donations and pledges for the new 12,000 square foot Welcome and Visitor Center. The tentative plan is to break ground in the spring of 2023.

If you would like to donate, click here at The Highground Rising Capital Campaign

Coming up Tuesday morning, we’ll share the stories of two families from western Wisconsin that have been impacted by The Highground Veterans Memorial Park.

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