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Driving force behind Hillsborough Vietnam memorial to be honored

Lt. Col. Jim Basta, U.S. Army retired, flew helicopters during the Vietnam era. He often spoke to youngsters about the military and worked tirelessly to get the Vietnam memorial at the park.

Special to the Times

Lt. Col. Jim Basta, U.S. Army retired, flew helicopters during the Vietnam era. He often spoke to youngsters about the military and worked tirelessly to get the Vietnam memorial at the park.

TAMPA — Nothing could have kept Jim Basta away from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dedication ceremony. Not his declining health or the chilly weather.

Basta, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, beamed with pride as the Vietnam War Memorial he helped establish at Veterans Memorial Park was dedicated on Veterans Day last November. He died a few months later.

Many say Lt. Col. Basta played an instrumental role in delivering the Vietnam memorial at Veterans Memorial Park and Museum. He worked tirelessly on the design, fundraising efforts and the acquisition of Vietnam-era helicopters.

He worked closely with the Veterans Memorial Park and Museum Committee to unveil the Vietnam memorial, the first one at the Hillsborough County park on U.S. 301 near Tampa.

After Basta's death at age 72 in April, friends and county leaders quickly acted to recognize his tireless efforts. On Saturday, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial will be dedicated in the memory of Lt. Col. James Michael Basta.

"He was the mover and shaker," said Ken Mulholland, his friend and Vietnam veteran pilot. "He was one of the dreamers."

Lt. Col. Basta served three tours in Vietnam and was shot down six times. He earned many honors for his service, including the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. He was a proud veteran, taking part in parades and talking to schoolchildren about the military. He often brought a large sidekick along — a Vietnam-era helicopter — to help tell his story.

"He wanted to teach these kids what made that helicopter fly," Mulholland said. Also important, Mulholland said, was educating young people about the Vietnam War, a years-long conflict that ended in the 1973.

Bob Silmser, a Vietnam-era veteran, and Lt. Col. Basta worked closely for years as co-chairs of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He said Basta's efforts were crucial in improving Veterans Memorial Park and establishing the Vietnam memorial.

Silmser felt so strongly about Lt. Col. Basta's work that he asked the County Commission on June 6 to add Lt. Col. Basta's name to the memorial and share in the project's costs. Board members unanimously agreed.

Silmser said the memorial plaque will depict two photographs of Lt. Col. Basta — one in his military uniform and the other with schoolchildren. Friends, colleagues and the Vietnam Helicopter Pilots Association of Florida raised the $2,400 to pay for the plaque. The county will cover the cost of the plaque's base, up to $10,000.

Silmser, Mulholland and county Commissioner Kevin Beckner will pay tribute to Lt. Col. Basta at the Saturday ceremony, set for 11 a.m.

Silmser, of Valrico, said it will be easy to talk about his buddy.

"I couldn't think of anyone better to be named in memory," said Silmser. "He was always such a part of it."

Beckner said Lt. Col. Basta deserves the honor because he served his country well — during and after the war.

"This is a small token to say thank you," Beckner said.

Lt. Col. Basta's widow, Marie, of Tampa, plans to attend the ceremony. She will be joined by her four children and nine grandchildren. "I think it's a great honor," she said. "He would be proud."

Marie Basta said her husband never expected any accolades for his work to honor veterans. He did what he loved.

"Somehow, maybe, he will know this is going on," she said.

Mulholland, of Lutz, said Lt. Col. Basta did not have a lot of hobbies. His passion was the old helicopters, talking to youngsters, working to improve Veterans Memorial Park for all servicemen and women, and creating a memorial to honor Vietnam's veterans. Mulholland was proud of Lt. Col. Basta and told him so on that chilly November day.

"It was a pleasure to go up to him and say, 'Jim, you did this,' " Mulholland said.

Dave Braun, the county's veterans ombudsman, said the Vietnam memorial is the first of 12 theaters of war memorials planned at Veterans Memorial Park at 3602 U.S. 301 N.

Monica Bennett can be reached at hillsnews@tampabay.com.

Driving force behind Hillsborough Vietnam memorial to be honored 07/14/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 14, 2012 5:31am]
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