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  1. Military

Groups work hard to raise funds for memorials at Veterans Memorial Park

A rendering of the planned Iraq War Veterans Memorial.
Published Nov. 8, 2012

TAMPA — Mark Goujon, 33, knows what it's like to lose a buddy in war.

A 12-year veteran of the Air Force, six men in his unit were killed while they were serving in Iraq.

Goujon has a small memorial set up for them in his office at his Riverview home, where their pictures hang on the wall and he can feel connected to them.

But now he wants to make something even bigger, where more people can go to honor their fallen soldiers.

Goujon, along with fellow veteran Mike Zaffino, 34, is spearheading the fundraising efforts for the Iraq War Veterans Memorial at the Veterans Memorial Park on U.S. 301.

"They're my motivation for doing this," Goujon said.

His committee is one of several that, in partnership with the Veterans Council of Hillsborough County and the county Department of Parks, Recreation and Conservation, are raising money for 15 war memorials at the park. The "theaters of war" will honor fallen soldiers in each war of Florida history, from the Seminole Indian Wars to the Civil War to the war in Afghanistan.

"We want to make this a world-class Veterans Park," said Bob Silmser, chairman of the committee that designed the Vietnam War memorial.

The Vietnam memorial, which was unveiled on Veterans Day last year, is the only one completed so far. It features memorial plaques, engraved bricks, multiple murals and two helicopters.

Silmser, a Vietnam-era veteran who didn't see combat, said 55 soldiers from Hillsborough County died in that war, and each one is honored in the park.

"The point is making vets feel like they do have a place to go and talk to their buddies," he said.

But raising money for the memorials is slow going.

In the past year, Goujon said his committee has raised $11,000 for the Iraq memorial. They need to raise about $250,000, or $500 a day, by May, so they can break ground and have the site finished by Veterans Day 2013.

Like the Vietnam memorial, the Iraq memorial will have a large mural. It will also include two Humvees, a 12-foot-tall bronze battle cross and the names of the 196 Florida soldiers killed in the war etched on dog tags.

The problem they are having, in addition to simply raising the money, is raising enough to make the first payments on work that needs to be started now.

The mural, for instance, will cost about $30,000, Goujon said. The company that will design needs $15,000 up front.

That's more than the group has in the bank.

So right now, the group is just trying to spread the word and collect donations, Goujon said.

Sponsors and donors can purchase engraved bricks of various sizes and prices, and all of the proceeds will go into the construction of the park.

Silmser said the groups are also hoping to get some funding from the county, but it is too early to tell if that would be possible. Five years ago, he said, the county allocated about $2.5 million to build the infrastructure of the park. Only about half of that money was used, he said, so maybe the group could get the remainder reallocated into funding the construction of the memorials.

"If the county approves the money that was allocated five years ago, we'll be able to fund all of them," Silmser said.

The reallocation request has yet to come before the County Commission.

But even if the groups could use that money, it would be split at least 15 different ways. A new museum and educational center, as well as memorials for prisoners of war and Purple Heart recipients are also planned at the park, Silmser said.

The groups raising money for the memorials still have a lot of work cut out for them, he said.

"This means a lot to Mark and the guys he's got working with him," Silmser said. "And even when you finish your particular theater of war, the work's not done."

With so many veterans and their families living in the area, and with the close proximity to MacDill Air Force Base, the park is ideally located, Goujon said. The council hopes it will turn into a major tourist attraction for the county, as well.

"The war in Iraq ended recently, and there are a lot of families still feeling the loss," he said. "It's going to be a really important park."

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