Nov. 11, 2007 — While annual Veterans Day celebrations on St. Thomas started off as usual with a parade winding uptown from Addelita Cancryn Junior High School, there were some differences in the program Monday, as throngs of residents and public officials skipped over Emancipation Garden and headed straight for the newly renovated Franklin D. Roosevelt V.I. Veterans Memorial Park.
Led by Gov. John deJongh Jr. and Adjutant General Renaldo Rivera, the parade –featuring hundreds of V.I. National Guardsmen and veterans young and old — wound its way up Veterans Drive, through Main Street and down Norre Gade, where a barrage of community members were already waiting. Unlike most other years, several citizens also flanked each roadway leading up to the park, cheering on the soldiers with hearty smiles, flashing cameras and gently waving flags.
While moving down Main Street, the company was also greeted by shouts from shop owners, who smiled and waved from open doorways. Large groups also converged by the downtown post office, creating a festive atmosphere reminiscent of annual Carnival celebrations. The 73rd V.I. Army National Band provided the day's theme music, mixing in with the loud brass and drum sounds produced by the Charlotte Amalie High School Marching Band, decked out in sparkling blue-and-gold uniforms.
A large satin bow blocked off the western entrance to the park, waiting to be cut by the governor and other public officials. Later in the day, the crowd cheered as the ribbon fell away, and the park — which has been under intense renovation for more than a year — was officially reopened to the public. Nearby, five granite pillars that frame the southern tip of the park stood tall under the crown of an eternal flame, each bearing the name of V.I. soldiers killed in battles ranging from World War II to Operation Iraqi Freedom. Each pillar represents a branch of the armed forces, including the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force.
Speaking at the end of the event, deJongh described the ceremonies as the best representation of the Virgin Islands, whose community members have combined their efforts to honor the sacrifices made by local veterans while contributing to the preservation of an important part of St. Thomas history.
"This gives us a chance to pay homage to our veterans, who have continued to fight for our freedoms," he said. "It also allows us to honor their families, because many of us don't even realize the things these individuals have to give up when their loved ones go off to serve and protect us. And today is also about the park — a park that is filled with emotion, of history. It gives us a sense of who we used to be, so now we can pay respect to our past while using it to help shape our future."
DeJongh and other speakers, including local historian Myron Jackson, spoke about the park's evolution over the years and how it became an integral part of St. Thomas history. Once called Coconut Square, the park served as a community meeting place in the middle of a bustling and growing Charlotte Amalie, Jackson explained. After Hurricane Marilyn struck in 1995, We From Upstreet — a community organization dedicated to preserving parts of the downtown area — adopted the park and began to host the annual Christmas lighting ceremonies that rapidly became a highly anticipated local activity.
Inspired by the organization's efforts, Chicago-based businessman Richard H. Driehaus took an interest in redeveloping the park, said Bill Peabody, who represented Driehaus during the ceremony. Driehaus took his plans for the park to the Trust for Public Land — a national agency dedicated to preserving public spaces within communities — and contributed $500,000 toward the first phase of the project. The rest of the funding, another $500,000, was provided by the local government, representatives from the Department of Housing, Parks and Recreation said after the event.
The results of the public-private partnership were fruitful, speakers said, bringing forth the restoration of a revered public space while honoring the efforts of local veterans. Despite the progress made on Monday, others added that more has to be done — such as making sure the community and government continue to maintain the park, and provide much-needed services to the hundreds of veterans living in the territory.
"Over the past three years, over 400 National Guard personnel have returned to the territory after serving in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan," said Justin Harrigan, former director of the Office of Veterans' Affairs. "This increase is unprecedented, and puts out a greater demand for services."
Harrigan challenged deJongh to put aside $1 million for veterans' housing programs, and asked that he also craft legislation to create corresponding medical and long-term care programs.
"The citizens of this territory have never failed to answer the call for service," Harrigan added. "And we have to make sure to continue to care for them, to honor them for giving their time and their talent to ensure that we all enjoy liberty, freedom and justice."
His administration will rise to the challenge, DeJongh said, and make sure returning veterans are provided with housing, employment opportunities and an education. Housing, Parks and Recreation Commissioner St. Claire N. Williams added that his agency would continue to maintain the park, ensuring its availability for future generations.
"The redevelopment of the park has a great significance," Williams added. "It pays tribute to the V.I. veterans who served our country. It allows us to appreciate the sacrifices they made to protect the freedoms that we so casually take for granted. And we should offer our thanks for that. We should offer our thanks every day."
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.