Story and Photography By Jo Ann Mathews
When Jay Kerr became police chief of Sunset Beach in 1998, he decided one way to bring the community together was to hold a Memorial Day service. It attracted enough people for him to add a Veterans Day service that year too.
“The veterans felt like it was the greatest thing anyone could do for them,” Kerr says, adding that they would come and visit him at his office, bring their medals and want to talk about their military experiences.
“The more time I spent around veterans, the more I got to know them,” Kerr says, and that gave him the idea that they should be honored with something more permanent.
Kerr pictured creating a veterans memorial in Sunset Beach. A group of residents supported his idea and got on board to promote it, but they could never find a suitable plot of land to fit their needs. Kerr retired in 2005 without achieving his goal. Lou DeVita helped keep the dream alive, though.
“It’s been on my plate since I got on the [Sunset Beach Town Council] in 2005,” says DeVita about the memorial.
When the town council voted in 2010 to buy 5.2 acres of land for a park along the Intracoastal Waterway near the site where the pontoon bridge used to be, a group of residents renewed their interest in a veterans memorial. They believed a portion of the land was ideal for it, so they formed a steering committee in 2012 and asked retired Lt. Col. Gordon Coulson to be chairman. He didn’t hesitate to accept.
Coulson moved to Sunset Beach in 2004 and has held various leadership positions at Sandpiper Bay Golf and Country Club. A native of White Rock, British Columbia, he joined the U.S. Army in 1967 and spent 1968-69 in Vietnam. At the end of his three-year commitment, he was back in Canada. That lasted only a few months before he decided the U.S. Army was for him. He earned his U.S. citizenship in 1984 and stayed in the Army until 1996. He lived in Fairfax, Virginia, before moving to Sunset Beach.
Former town council member Karen Joseph says she and DeVita were advisors to the steering committee, now named the Committee to Honor America’s Veterans. The pair made the motion for the board to donate some land for the memorial.
Architect Joe Johnson of Johnson Garrett Architects in Ocean Isle Beach provided pro bono an original design of a 2,000- square-foot memorial, but the rendering did not skate through board approval. It was suggested that a water feature be included, but Coulson discouraged the suggestion. “I spent most of my Army years in the Corps of Engineers,” he says. “I understand that a water feature needs maintenance.” Councilwoman Carol Scott was on the record as saying she would vote for the project once it was less than 1,000 square feet.
A redesign has the memorial in a 908-square-foot circle with an 18-inch-high wall surrounding it. Access to the circle is from three entrances. People will be able to sit on the wall and contemplate the reason for the memorial. The floor is comprised of bricks in varying sizes, which people can buy and have engraved with appropriate inscriptions of their choice. A flagpole, pedestals for each of the branches of service and a pedestal holding bronze statues of two children who are looking at the flag are inside the circle. An inscription at the base of the statues will say, “Thank you for our freedom.” A 4-foot pedestal with a map of the world representing the presence of U.S. military across the globe is in the circle as well.
“There was no problem with reducing the size,” Coulson says. “The reduced size allows us to be outside the canopy of the trees.” As a result, the flag will fly unencumbered.
“I think what we came up with is a sophisticated but simple plan,” Joseph says. “It will give people an opportunity to respect the contributions of those who served. It doesn’t obstruct any part of the park.”
Coulson explains that the memorial will occupy space that wasn’t going to be used at the site, and pathways will wind through the park and go by the memorial. “[It gives] you a reason to go to the park,” he says.
No tax dollars will be used for the memorial, Coulson adds. The $160,000 budget relies on donations, grants and sale of the bricks. Thus far, about $18,000 has been raised and 100 of the 2,600 bricks have been sold. The committee has received $3,700 in corporate donations or grants and is seeking 501 (c)(3) nonprofit status. Coulson emphasizes that the memorial won’t be completed until money is available.
Fundraising efforts are now underway. During Bike Week, May 9 to 18, the Committee to Honor America’s Veterans will have a booth at Beach Harley Davidson, 4919 Ocean Highway W in Shallotte, to inform visitors about the memorial and to solicit donations. The committee is also considering a golf tournament.
“This memorial is for all veterans in Brunswick County,” Coulson says. “It is for past veterans, present veterans and future veterans.”
He has thrown all his efforts into making the project successful and will continue working on it until it is completed.
“I am available to talk about it anytime, anyplace,” he says, and adds, “I never stopped serving. I really enjoyed the Army. This is another way of serving.”
The target for completion is Veterans Day 2015. But the fundraising efforts, sale of the bricks and donations will determine the final dedication.
“If it takes 10 years to complete, I’m not going to give up, but we need everyone’s help,” Coulson says.
What: Veterans Memorial
Where: Sunset Beach Town Park
Information: www.sbvets.org ; 910-575-4162