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Thanking Veterans in Small Towns

May 10, 2017
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Carol Stream, Illinois is one of several small suburbs of the larger Chicago area, but it has stood out among them for one reason - the town had no notable dedicated memorial to the veterans of the United States Armed Forces. Now, with the help of its local government and veteran community, the town is raising funds to build a memorial that properly thanks those who have served.

A Simple Idea

Everyone we spoke with credited Jim Benzin with proposing the project at a town meeting. Benzin himself took none of the credit, citing all the major players that came on board to make it possible; the local Park District, local veterans organizations, small businesses, even the Mayor's office, came on board to support the idea of a dedicated, prominent memorial for Veterans. The location would be utilized not only for services on Memorial Day and other holidays, but as a park where everyday citizens could reflect, ponder, learn, and be with their families. Jim Reuter, the Executive Director for the Carol Stream Park District and the leader of the project, told American Grit that his initial meetings with Benzin and others opened a lot of eyes to the experiences of the town's veteran community."The first hour of the meeting was talking about the project, and the next two hours was them telling me their stories... I don't think people understand, unless they're tied in and touched that way, what our men and women have gone through," he said. "I think what Veterans are going through right now, coming back and possibly not having jobs, possibly not having a place to live, that bothers me. I'm not a veteran, I'm just very supportive of those services, and I consider myself to be an American through and through."[caption id="attachment_11557" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]

Jim Reuter, Executive Director for the Carol Stream Park District[/caption]The same sentiments spread across the town as more people heard about the project and got on board."The Village is involved, and they're very supportive, and the VFW... We've also run all of the funding through a 501c3 we've set up; it's a parks foundation, and their specific mission is to support Carol Stream Park District programs and events... we thought it was important that people get their proper tax break if they wanted to donate," Reuter said. Right now, the task force is raising the funds necessary to get the project "shovel ready," so that construction can begin as soon as possible. The total amount needed is $200,000. They were optimistic enough to set the original completion date as Memorial Day this year - but, after a slower start than anticipated, the project has been pushed back to Memorial Day of 2018. "It would be awesome to open it on Memorial Day; that just makes sense," Reuter said.


A Big Impact

American Grit had a chance to speak with several members of the local veteran community who are also members of the project's task force, to get their take on the project and what it means to them.

Jim Benzin

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Jim Benzin, Second Class Petty Officer, Electrician, US Navy 1967-1977. Deployed to Vietnam during that time. After service, discovered that he had a learning disability, and became a Special Education teacher as a result. Also taught at Elmhurst College for years before retirement. Credits the Military with giving him the discipline and self-confidence to pursue his career. Current Commander of the Carol Stream VFW.[/caption]What did you originally expect from this project?"To be honest, I was hoping for sod and a couple of flowers. That's where I was at. A couple weeks later, I get a call from the Mayor's office saying they want me to come in for a meeting. The rest is history."What does this memorial mean to you?"Back when I was in the military, it was in the sixties, it was the Vietnam era, it was crazy. A lot of people disagreed with the war. And a lot of them took it out on the first target they saw, which was the military. We were the bad guys. We got called names, we were spit on, all that nonsense. When we came back, it was recommended to us that we not wear our uniforms. And that just stuck in my craw... if anything came out of the Vietnam war, its that we respect our military guys today. And I think that was the best outcome of what came out of that war. You do the best job you can do, you take care of the guy next to you. To this day, my goal is to have that respect for the military and for their families because of what they do for this country, especially now because it's all volunteer. And today, you've got guys going over there for 4 or 5 tours!... Nobody takes the time to think about that, and the families that have to put up with that.""My daughter said, 'Dad, why would you spend money on stone, when you can help organizations?' And I sat there and thought about it for a while, and I said, 'When you drop a pebble into the water, it ripples out. If you build this memorial, for the next 50 years, people are going to be reminded when they go by, they'll be reminded if it shows up in a newspaper article, they'll be reminded [when they visit]... So it's not just on Memorial Day when people show up for Memorial Day service. And if everybody in Carol Stream gave 5 bucks, we'd have it paid for."

Leonard Aiello

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Leonard Aiello. US Navy. Born and raised in Italy, immigrated to the US at 16. Served as everything from a Boatswain's mate to a Translator while stationed in Italy. After service, worked for US Customs.[/caption]What was the biggest lesson you learned from your time in the military?"One of the reasons why we win every war is they encourage you - that you can do things that you think you are not capable of doing."What does this memorial mean to you?"I am extremely proud of this country. And I would like to see the Veterans memorial to honor Veterans who have served this country. You know, every country has problems. But this country still sticks out to me... after I got out of the Navy, I went to college under the GI Bill, and I got a job US Customs. I dealt with many different nations, so I learned a lot about what was going on in other countries as opposed to the United States, the kind of freedom that we have, the liberty, the kind of justice that we have here, and so I appreciate this country even more."

"Lou" Lingwai

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Machine Gunner in Marine Corps. Deployed to Vietnam from 1968-1969, returned after being wounded. Worked in construction, logistics, and maintenance. Recently retired. New grandpa to a baby girl. One of the founders of the Carol Stream VFW.[/caption]What was the biggest lesson you learned from your time in the military?"I would never ask somebody to do something that I wouldn't do myself."What does this memorial mean to you?"I think the town, the village, needs a memorial park... I've lived here almost 39 years, and I think it would be nice to have a park to honor all the past servicemen and present members."

Michael Mero (not pictured)

US Air Force. Served as a munitions maintenance specialist 1974-1979. Worked in finance after service, including the FDIC.What was the biggest lesson you learned from your time in the military?"Self-confidence, maturity... self-reliance. Also, the ability to prioritize both in your personal and professional life."What does this memorial mean to you?"My personal hope is, once we have this beautiful memorial, that we'll put more names of veterans out there and produce more recognition for them [in the Carol Stream Community]."

Rich Hildenbrand (not pictured)

US Army with the 1st. Air Cav. Div. 1970-1971What does this memorial mean to you?"This park is a memorial to all veterans of all branches of service... especially for those who paid the ultimate price. [It] will stand for generations to come to honor all veterans past, present, and future."

A Long Way to Go

While fundraising is in full swing, the memorial park is still far from ready to go. Jim Reuter told American Grit that he has a lot of faith in the Carol Stream Community, and has been continually impressed with how they have come together on this project. He also said that, in order for the project to move forward from a conceptual plan to a shovel-ready project, they will need to cast a much wider net and bring people on board with as much passion as they have. If you would like to learn more about the project, and how you can help or would like to donate, you can do it through this link.

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