October 22, 2021

Veterans memorial park upgrades nearly complete

Valerie Puma/staff reporter

Norm Stitzel of Veteran Search and Rescue, left, talks Wednesday with Jim Evener and Gary Napieracz of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 at Courthouse Park in Cortland. Progress on renovations to the monuments at the park should be complete in time for Veterans Day

They’re waiting for just a few more plaques to arrive, but veterans expect the renovated Cortland County Veterans Memorial Park to be completed in time for their Veterans Day ceremony next month.

Calling the project a labor of love, Norm Stitzel, chaplain of Veterans Search and Rescue, has had a vision for the memorial for more than a decade.

“This started for me 10 years ago. I was standing in uniform with a rifle for Memorial Day, standing behind the old wall and I saw a chunk of the stucco fall off into the grass,” Stitzel said. “It was all I thought about during the ceremony.”

And he’s thought about that scene ever since.

Years later, Stitzel called Chuck Miller, director of buildings and grounds for Cortland County, to pursue renovations. Later, the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377 joined the cause and began raising $30,000 in May to repair the Vietnam Veterans Memorial just a few yards away.

“If it wasn’t for us veterans, the monument would’ve collapsed, it was deteriorating so bad,” said chapter President Gary Napieracz. “When you stop to think about the school systems, they hardly teach the students anything about Vietnam, about a lot of these wars. The only thing we can do is put the plaques and pedestals back up and introduce them to the history of the wars and tell them our story.”

Before renovations began, slabs of the Vietnam Veterans monument’s granite siding were hanging on loosely, the propane torch sat unused and the engraved names were fading beyond recognition.

Now, the veterans are just waiting for a 25-foot flag pole and a few plaques and benches, Napieracz said.

“It’s about the names on the wall,” Stitzel said, gesturing to the wall listing every Cortland County military service member who was killed in action. “We’re the ones that served and came home, so it’s our responsibility to make sure those names are on a wall and give them the honor they deserve.”

Photo provided by Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 377

A piece of granite siding on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had broken away from the monument. The Vietnam Veterans of America raised money for a $30,000 renovation as part of a $100,000 project for the entire complex, which is waiting on a new flag pole, lighting and benches.

Veteran Search and Rescue’s three-phase, $70,000 project included taking down the wall of engraved names to redo the groundwork and stabilize the memorial, cleaning each plaque and creating a centerpiece for a battlefield cross statue.

“When you have a soldier that was killed on the battlefield, the boots are set on the ground with the rifle standing between the boots and their helmet put on top of it,” Stitzel said. “It’s basically a field memorial for those killed in action.”

Each battlefield cross statue is era-specific, and the Veterans Search and Rescue chose the uniform and rifle of a U.S. soldier during the Afghanistan and Iraq War era, Stitzel said.

“Every conflict was represented in this park except for the Afghanistan, Iraq and Gulf wars,” he said. “That’s why this is so significant. We only had one local killed in action for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars — Army Pfc. Shawn Falter — so his name is going on a plaque in front of the pedestal.”

Falter was 25 in January 2007 when he was abducted and killed in an ambush. At the dedication ceremony on Veterans Day, Stitzel will give Falter’s family a memorial wreath to place on his plaque.

The park will also have new lighting to illuminate the plaques, flag and signs, Stitzel said. “A ‘Cortland Memorial Park’ sign will be lit up at night so when you look over, the park is nicely lit and it’ll shine. And, of course, the Vietnam Veterans Monument‘s eternal flame will also be lit.”

Once the Cortland Memorial Park renovations are completed, Stitzel’s next project will be renovating the World War I monument in the center of Courthouse Park.

“This isn’t just about honoring the names on the wall, but also educating the youth and the next generations about the history, and the cost of their freedom,” Stitzel said.

Commemorative bricks

People can buy $100 bricks in memory of a loved one.
The bricks will be placed in the paving in front of the wall engraved with the names of those who died in wars.

For details or to donate, visit vetsar.com or call 607-423-9031.

Veterans Day ceremony

When: 2 p.m. on Nov. 11
Where: Courthouse Park in Cortland
The ceremony will take place rain or shine.