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Mat-Su veterans memorial wall begins complicated move to Wasilla

Vietnam veteran Chris Fowler visited the former site of the Veterans Wall of Honor near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Tuesday, August 21, 2018.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

WASILLA — A Mat-Su veterans memorial is finally being moved to a long-awaited permanent location but leaving behind a gutted concrete skeleton and some hard feelings.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough in 2015 sold the land beneath the Veterans Wall of Honor, located since 1992 on a scenic bluff off the Parks Highway next to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

Veterans groups worked with the borough and city of Wasilla for several years before securing a more permanent location. The borough Assembly in June removed a deed restriction protecting the wall.

A contractor this month took 100 hours to remove more than 30 granite panels bearing the names of over 2,300 men and women.

The panels are scheduled to be installed in time for Veterans Day at the future site of Wasilla's new police station.

But veteran Chris Fowler didn't realize the move was imminent until the end of July, when he brought a friend to the hospital and saw two men prying off panels of names — including his own.

Fowler, 77, served with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam from the late 1950s into the early 1960s.

The panel with Fowler's name broke, along with three others, during the relocation this month.

"When I saw that, it just brought me back to memories of Vietnam and how they just spit all over us," he said.

A photo taken by another observer of the process shows a panel in pieces on the grass, names visible on the ground.

Officials with the City of Wasilla and the contractor doing the job said they tried to preserve as much of the wall as possible but couldn't avoid breaking four large granite panels.

"We felt real good that we got as many as we did," said Archie Giddings, Wasilla's public works director.

The shift to a new memorial is costing more than $400,000, including $150,000 from the borough and more than $300,000 from Mat-Su Health Foundation. The next phase, including a pavilion, is expected to cost another $250,000.

The nearly $350,000 contract to move the wall included the option of breaking panels if necessary or even replacing the whole memorial outright, officials said. About $75,000 went into designing the new site.

Contractor Axys LLC opted to preserve as much of the original structure as possible, company president Grant Hendrickson said. Axys met with members of the family who maintained the wall for years. Hendrickson said he didn't want to waste the years of "blood, sweat and tears" the family and other volunteers put into the memorial.

Some panels were attached with metal clasps and construction adhesive, but others used more resistant epoxy, he said. Crews used heated saws to ease through the epoxy, but several panels broke.

The rest of the structure will stay in place, Hendrickson said, because the contract was only for moving the panels.

Giddings, the public works director, said the wall holds the name of his grandfather, who served in the Navy from 1937 until 1957.

"I can appreciate where everyone's coming from," he said.

The borough in 1992 gave permission to locate the wall on the property, according to a letter from a community services manager at the time.

The search for a new location began nearly three years ago when the borough sold the land to Idaho-based developer Spring Creek Enterprise LLC for a senior care facility and promised to preserve the memorial.

But the company didn't get full state approval and sold the site to another developer, which then sold to the Mat-Su Health Foundation. The foundation is the hospital's charitable partner.

Plans for a new location were solidified by last November.

A health foundation spokeswoman said Tuesday there are no specific plans for the former site yet.

The move was unanimously approved by a group made up of representatives from five veterans groups in the Valley. But several members have since said they were under the impression moving had been the only option.

Vietnam veteran Chris Fowler visited the Veterans Wall of Honor near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center on Tuesday.  (Bill Roth / ADN)

The contract for the move specified the granite slabs bearing veterans' names had to be replaced with replicas if broken or damaged, said J.R. Hackett, a U.S. Air Force veteran on the 11-member Mat-Su Honor Wall Foundation board of directors.

"For us to be able to go forward, we couldn't just tell a contractor the only choice was for them to remove the panels," Hackett said. "We would never have got a bid."

Axys got high marks from Mike Sweeney, a mason whose father created a large concrete flag near the memorial. Joe Sweeney wanted to "make a flag they can't burn," his son said Tuesday.

But Mike Sweeney still has hard feelings about the borough's decision to sign over the deed. Joe Sweeney was one of several veterans who volunteered to create the original memorial. His ashes are mixed into the soil of a flower planter there. Fowler also says there are other veterans' ashes buried at the base of the monument.

Axys is working with his family to move the flag and his father's remains, Mike Sweeney said.

His father — his favorite saying was "It's just like Christmas every day" — would have wanted to move on.

"My dad was a Marine and he would have said, 'If all my buddies are getting shafted too, I'm gonna go with them,'" Sweeney said.

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