Set in Stone: New Memorial Honors Veterans

Writer Shannon Severson

Photography Courtesy of Herbert Hitchon

In small town squares across the United States, there is a long-standing tradition of honoring local military veterans with memorials. It’s an important way that a community can show how grateful it is for the sacrifices made by our country’s men and women in uniform.

The town of Carefree will now have its own memorial to veterans within Carefree Desert Gardens. The story behind it is one of community, collaboration and renewal of purpose for a young man seeking his Eagle Scout designation.

The completed project will be officially dedicated on Veterans Day — Wednesday, Nov. 11 — with programming throughout the day to accommodate social distancing measures.

“We have always been a very veteran-friendly town,” says Vice Mayor John Crane, who is a U.S. Navy veteran and former submariner. “We have had Veterans Day programs and Memorial Day ceremonies, but we wanted something that is perpetual and wanted it to come from the community as a grassroots effort. The town was happy to provide the location.”

An Eagle Scout’s Quest

While contemplating this project, Crane became aware of Devin Smith — a Cactus Shadows High School senior at the time who was attempting to complete the requirements to earn his Eagle Scout designation.

Smith is the grandson of an original Carefree resident who is a 41-year Phoenix police officer and Army veteran who served in Okinawa as a “special message-relaying agent.” Smith, who hopes to become a Navy Corpsman and eventually a doctor, was going through a rough patch as he neared the end of his high school education.

“I had my post-college life planned out, but I was in a major auto accident and a lot of those plans fell through during my senior year,” Smith says. “I had gotten away from my lifelong goal of getting my Eagle Scout designation [and] was just caught up in my personal life.

“I totaled my truck the day before high school graduation. I have a tremor in my arm that is genetic and the accident made it ten times worse. I had to make a decision that, once I got my feet back under me, I was going to dedicate myself to completing this goal; not just for my dad or my grandpa, but because it was important to me, personally.”

Smith’s portion of the project focused on the flagpole, which bears the U.S. and POW/MIA flags, serving as a beacon to draw visitors to the memorial. He got in touch with local business owner Jason Macke of Flagpole Today, who donated the 20-foot tall pole and flags. Macke lent his expertise to guide Smith’s team of scouts while they installed the flagpole — which is illuminated at night so that the flags are always flying.

While the Carefree Veterans Memorial was just one aspect of his Eagle Scout quest, Smith says it has a special meaning to him.

“I wanted to do something for veterans because it is a cause close to my heart to honor the men and women who have served our country,” Smith explains. “My grandpa and great-grandpa served. It’s an amazing feeling to drive by and see my flag standing there. This all could have gone much differently. It was in God’s hands the entire time and I’m grateful He allowed this to happen.”

Support Despite Setbacks

Smith’s work on the flag is just one piece of the larger puzzle of the Carefree Veterans Memorial. Crane asked town resident and U.S. Army veteran Mike Ferrell if he would be willing to lead the project and put together a group of veterans to be a part of it. 

Ferrell said that he would be proud to be part of the effort and put together a planning committee that included U.S. Air Force veteran Pratt Ashworth, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Bob Jenkins, U.S. Coast Guard veteran Richard Hartig and U.S. Navy veteran Mike Wold. Several of the men are Ferrell’s fellow members at the American Legion Post 34 in Cave Creek.

“We started getting together as a group, visiting websites and looking at veterans memorials in small towns across the United States,” Ferrell says. “We studied construction, materials, the setting and wording on the plaques.”

In January, the planning committee ordered 6,000 pounds of stone from Anasazi Stone in Scottsdale and bronze plaques from Bertram Signs and Graphics in Carefree, as well as curbing, benches and pavers.

The vertically placed stones will be surrounded on all sides with a paved walkway and benches that visitors can use to sit and enjoy moments of contemplation. Each plaque will face outward, and honors veterans from the different branches of the armed forces: Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard and Space Force.

The group planned to launch a major fundraising campaign in February 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic halted to their plans.

“We felt it would be inappropriate to approach small business for donations when they were already experiencing challenges at that time,” Ferrell explains. “We funded it ourselves and figured we would gather funds later, as we could.”

As it turns out, the group received donations despite the setback and continues to do so.

“The monetary donations from local area businesses and residents were more than we could have imagined at the outset of the project,” Ferrell says. “Without their donations, this project wouldn’t have been possible.”

Crane says the fundraising is 75% of the way finished, all of it through privately funded donations.

“We have received donations not just from Carefree residents, but from all over the area,” he notes. “So many who have served or who have a family member or friend who has served want to be a part of this.

Generosity and Friendship

Crane adds that Carefree Desert Gardens is the perfect place for the memorial.

“We have the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona located off Cave Creek Road just north of the 101, but this part of the Valley didn’t have much of anything to recognize our veterans permanently,” he explains. “We are proud to be a part of fulfilling that need. This is a really special memorial in a beautiful place and many people have told me they are looking forward to the events this Veterans Day.”

The vice mayor says that he was honored to work with such a dedicated team of volunteers whose involvement, ideas and attention to detail never wavered despite setbacks that were out of their control.

Ferrell concurs, adding that one of the things that he enjoyed most was the camaraderie developed between the individuals on the team that put the project together.

“This includes the town of Carefree, the Boy Scouts, local merchants donating their time and materials to the project and, of course, the project team members,” Ferrell says. “Their generosity and friendship caused me to have a greater understanding of what it means to be part of a small town and to participate in the efforts to make it a great place to live. I am proud to be a resident of Carefree, Arizona.”

carefree.org

Carefree Veterans Memorial Dedication

Wednesday, Nov. 11 | See website for schedule of events | Carefree Desert Gardens | 101 Easy St. | Carefree | Free | 480-488-3686 | carefree.org

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