Old 41 and Pennsylvania Avenue, Bonita Springs, FL
If you go
Traveling Wall and Cost of Freedom Tribute
Riverside Park on Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs
Through Sunday Dec. 4 at noon.
First responders, 1 p.m. Friday
All who served, 1 p.m. Saturday
Memorial service, 4 p.m. Saturday
Closing ceremony and memorial service, 9 a.m. Sunday
BONITA SPRINGS — At 370 feet, the replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial curves like embracing arms along the eastern edge of Riverside Park in Bonita Springs.
The wall, 8 feet tall at its apex and built to 80-percent scale, includes all 58,195 names etched on the original memorial in Washington D.C.
An opening ceremony was held Thursday afternoon and the display will be open for public viewing until noon on Sunday.
It encloses a grassy space in front of the park’s bandshell that has been transformed into an educational tribute honoring the soldiers, sailors, airmen and first responders who have lost their lives defending American freedoms.
“We have a beautiful little town and should honor our veterans,” said Bob Gillette, who helped bring the memorial to Bonita Springs. “This helps pull the town together.”
Volunteers from the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Bonita Springs Fire Control and Rescue District and local veterans groups escorted the traveling display in a motorcade from Gulf Coast Town Center to the park on Wednesday.
On Thursday morning, many of the same volunteers helped construct the wall, known as the Traveling Wall.
In addition to the wall, the tribute includes a Gold Dog Tag Memorial, honoring service members who have lost their lives in conflicts since the end of the Vietnam War, including those who have died in battle since 2001.
A Walk of Heroes area includes a series of standup boards listing the lives lost in each of the nation’s major wars.
Other boards provide historical timelines of the Vietnam War and World War II, honor first responders including police and firemen, and memorialize the casualties of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting.
“This can help kids get a feeling for Vietnam and other wars,” Gillette said. “I don’t think they teach it in schools as much, and that’s the basis for it.”
Working with the city’s Veterans Advisory Committee and City Councilman Steven Slachta, Gillette helped bring the tribute to Bonita Springs with a $13,000 personal donation.
“I was in the Air Force, but not on active duty, so I don’t put myself on the same pedestal as these guys,” Gillette said. “I wanted to give back.”
Ray “Bouncer” Leventhal, chairman of American Legion Riders Florida District 13, was among the motorcycle riders who escorted the display Wednesday. He also sang the National Anthem during the opening ceremony.
“My father was in World War II and my grandfather in World War I,” he said. “This strikes home for me. I thought it’s a way to serve now because I didn’t serve then.”
The Traveling Wall is one of at least four replica walls that travel the country to allow those who can’t travel to Washington D.C. to experience the nation’s most visited war memorial.
The Wall that Heals, a different replica wall, will be displayed in Marco Island from Wednesday, Dec. 7 through Saturday, Dec. 10.
The Traveling Wall in Bonita will be open for public viewing at Riverside Park until noon on Sunday. Volunteers will be on hand around the clock to prevent vandalism.
Four special services have been scheduled at the park, honoring first responders, veterans and those who have lost their lives.
Gillette said he hopes the display will help kick-start an effort to raise funds for a permanent veterans memorial at the park.
“We’re trying to get some folks behind us to build that monument,” Gillette said. “We’ve got about 30 percent of the money raised and we hope to have it built by next Veterans Day.”