Independence Day ceremonies honor veterans, Memorial Park advocate

Independence Day was a great day for a few good men.

Like Phil Blake, the 89-year-old World War II veteran who led the revival of Wichita’s downtown Veterans Memorial Park.

Like a collection of veterans struggling with serious health problems at the Robert J. Dole Veterans Administration Medical Center in Wichita.

In two ceremonies across Wichita, Blake and the ailing veterans were honored for their service — in conflict and in honoring that conflict.

During a scheduled holiday ceremony, park officials unveiled a plaque dedicating the new World War II memorial and its 1,500 bricks honoring its soldiers to Blake. The plaque gives Blake the title of the park’s “commandant.”

Ted Ayres, president of the park’s board of directors, unveiled the plaque as a surprised Blake sat nearby in his wheelchair, his eyes wide.

“See what you did to me,” Blake said to Ayres, removing his glasses and wiping away tears.

“I can’t believe it,” Blake said after the ceremony. “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Blake said he was “surprised and embarrassed, all of the above.”

“It is indeed a special day,” he said. “A lot of work coming to fruition, but I sure didn’t do it alone.”

The VA veterans were honored during the 12th annual July Fourth picnic at the hospital’s Transitional Living Center, which offers care to veterans disabled by illness and injury who can’t care for themselves.

The picnic tradition began in 2002 to honor veteran Vernell Moon, who was hospitalized at the VA with leukemia.

“He said that he really missed the annual holiday picnic at the base (McConnell), so we thought we should do one for him,” said Douglas Rowe, a 20-year veteran who organized the picnic.

After Moon died, the group decided – bolstered by the American Legion’s Fifth District – that the picnic should continue.

“These people need something to look forward to,” said ex-district commander Bud Canady. “They’re in a tough situation here. I don’t know why they don’t go stir crazy. I couldn’t do it.”

It was a special day for Army veteran Jon Baxter, 70, who’s been battling lung cancer for three weeks in the TLC, with his huge extended family joining him for a reunion at the picnic.

How big a family?

“Who knows?” Baxter chuckled. “I can’t keep track of them.”

Surrounded by the first seven of an expected 24 family members to attend, Baxter said he appreciated the acknowledgment of his year-plus in Vietnam.

“It’s special to have my family here, and my service, yes it is,” he said. “My kids can push me around today.”

“It means so much to Jon to have everyone here,” said his wife, Judy. “I’d just like to thank them for serving our country and protecting our lives.”

Vietnam veteran Charles Heilman and his mother, Dee, also took part in the picnic.

Heilman, 62, suffers from breathing problems. It’s too early to tell if he’ll be able to return home.

“Today is a day to reflect on all those that don’t have the freedoms we have and be glad that I live in a land where I can do as I please,” he said.

“We’re a close family,” his mother said. “We love America. I had a Dad who served, brothers who served, uncles who served. They are kind and good here. I appreciate them.”

Dee said she wants her son home.

“But if he doesn’t get to come, we’re going to keep on keeping on,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, making one of his holiday tours to assess the quality of VA care, also took part in the picnic.

“It’s a great honor to be able to thank these individuals for what they’ve done on behalf of all Americans,” Moran said. “I recognize me and my family have the opportunities to live in this country with the opportunities we have thanks to their service.”

Baxter has no regrets about his service.

“I’ve had a good life,” he said.

He dismissed the idea that his time in Vietnam was too long.

“A day is too long for a war,” he said.

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