Eternally dedicated to Veterans
By Beth Volpert and Auveed Bagheri Cawthon
As Tom Witts, Navy Combat Veteran and current councilman, and Mayor Pro-Tem of Snellville, GA, reaches back into his memory banks about his time serving in Vietnam, a few tears begin to shine in his eyes.
His efforts to relight the eternal flame with an appropriately designed memorial to his fallen brothers might be enough to help soothe the pain that came from a war no one seemed to ever win, but it will never completely take it away.
“I believe that my desire to be an advocate for Veterans stems from the way the Vietnam Vets were treated. We didn’t deserve what we came home to,” says Tom Witts.
“When I was being discharged from the Navy I was sent to Treasure Island California. The first morning I was there, I was given a chit for $100.00 to go to the ships store (PX) and buy civilian clothing. We were confused so we asked why. We were told that the general opinion was that it was not safe for us to travel home in our uniforms,” says Witts.
LEFT: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class, Tom Witts working on an anenometer that checks wind speed in Danang Harbour.
“You have to realize that this was the era of My Lai, war protests on major campuses, and most larger airports had protesters meeting flights (of war veterans) coming home. They protested the war and those of us who fought there were the object of the protest. When you did get home, people acted like you were out of town instead of in a war. It was a taboo subject so most of us learned to just keep it to ourselves. The place I felt the most comfortable talking about it back then was at night school at Penn State. Most of us were there under the GI Bill so you knew you could speak about it,” says Witts.
For twenty years, the eternal flame had burned in tribute in Snellville to the veterans who served in the Vietnam war. In 2005 the eternal flame on Snellville’s Vietnam Veterans memorial was extinguished and the memorial was moved to the new City Hall.
Follow this link for what Veterans had to say at the new Snellville Veterans Memorial Dedication: http://www.gwinnettcitizen.com/local-news/local-news/775-freedom-is-never-free-snellville-veterans-memorial-dedication
According to Witts, who is Snellville’s Mayor Pro Tem, “As a veteran myself, and being involved in Veteran organizations, I was well aware that the eternal flame meant more to the veterans than the city Fathers realized. For years, I was part of the ceremony that included placing a wreath on the monument each Memorial Day. But when the monument was moved to its current location and the flame wasn’t relit that tradition ended.”
In 2011, Tom Witts committed himself to relighting the eternal flame. He established a non-profit, the Snellville Community Foundation, and organized the Snellville Veterans Memorial Committee consisting of a group of volunteers and community partners.
“Since the new Snellville City Hall was moved we have not had a veterans celebration or Memorial Day celebration. They were just another day in Snellville,” says Tom Witts. “I thought it would be an easy thing to relight the flame on the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Then I was told we could not get gas to that location because of the granite.”
“I thought we could move the Vietnam Veterans Memorial (which sits to the left of City Hall) but understood why the original organization, Snellville Jaycees, did not want it moved. That left us with one alternative - to build a new memorial.”
We decided the new memorial should include all veterans, not just of foreign war. It would have to have an eternal flame and we wanted to have a water feature.”
“We literally went to the site and I told him what I was thinking about and literally within ten minutes he had the new memorial drawn. We both saw that this was what it should be. Chad Smith donated his architectural services,” says Witts.
Chad was able to get a hold of Bob McCann with Haynes Gibson Engineering firm who donated all the engineering. Bob McCann is a West Point Graduate and Somalia Veteran.
Then another veteran Tom Hill with Serenity Falls came forward and donated all the planning and installation of the water feature.
With the two year and eight month process of dreaming, designing, fundraising, promoting and building the newly lit Snellville Veterans Memorial behind him, Tom can spend more time concentrating on what the memorial means to other veterans and the city.
No one can second guess any soldier’s reaction to having served in Vietnam, but many witnessed the manner in which United States Military were treated upon returning home. Shameful is not close to describing the treatment and memorials, like the one Tom
The Snellville Veterans Memorial includes a “Wall of Veterans”, an eternal flame, and a water fall. It is completely funded by donations, the sale of tiles which has the veterans’ names etched in them, and brick pavers which have personalized names or tributes etched. Tiles and pavers are still available by contacting Tom Witts at (770) 891-1612 or going online to http://www.thatsmybrick.com/snellville.
Tom Witts says, “that after the Snellville Veterans Memorial dedication on May 24th all that became important was what the Memorial meant to those who visit it and those who are named on it. I had hoped that it would be well received but I wasn’t expecting the show of appreciation and comments from the veteran groups as well as those in attendance.
“I believe that the local VFW and American Legion and all veterans will adopt the memorial and make sure that each Veteran and Memorial Day will have a program and the laying of the wreaths. I don’t think we have rekindled the Citizens appreciation of Veterans but rather we have given them an object or destination for them to openly display it,” says Witts.
For Tom, who was advised not to wear his uniform on his flight home, time and the memorial can help to ease memories and celebrate the true meaning of being a veteran.
Please see below for Tom’s list of ‘Believers’ who contributed and made possible the Snellville Veterans Memorial.