Veterans park project underway with new funding

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By Kaitlin Hoskins, News Editor

On January 9, 1947, a dozen World War II veterans from Etowah County formed a memorial park association and purchased 233 acres of wooded land in the vicinity of Hokes Bluff.

The WWII Memorial Park Association members paid $3,200 for the land, and for the next 75 years, the land stayed undeveloped — the association’s goals laid to waste.

In April of 2022, the group’s goals were reignited by a discovery made by Etowah County Probate Judge Scott W. Hassell. Hassell discovered a document containing the article of incorporation for the park association and a list of its 12 members. Hassell did not recognize any of the names on the list, so he enlisted the help of the Gadsden Etowah Patriots Association.

“[Hassell] explained that if none of the 12 original board members of the association were still living, the property would have to be turned over to the State of Alabama,” said Dave Jensen, chairman of the Veterans Memorial Park Association.

The Patriots Association and the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post were able to locate the only surviving member of the original park association, and a meeting was held with representatives from all of the veterans service organizations in the county and the original member.

Under the guidance of Hassell, a new board of trustees was established under the new organization’s name — Veterans Memorial Park Association.

The new organization’s goal is the same as the original association’s aim: to use the undeveloped land near Hokes Bluff to create a peaceful and restorative facility that will offer therapeutic services for all veterans, their families and their community.

“The vision for the project is to provide a site for outdoor activities including camping, hiking, back packing, rock climbing, fishing and archery for veterans and their families,” Jensen said. “Equally important, the program will also provide a site for the use of recreational outdoor therapy for clinical programs in the treatment of veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, trauma related challenges and major depressive disorder.”

According to Jensen, Alabama is home to approximately 400,00 military veterans, making it one of the highest per capita populations of military veterans in the nation.

“Unfortunately, the most recently released data shows that nearly 18 percent of those who died by suicide in Alabama were veterans,” Jensen said. “Additionally, veterans in Alabama are more than twice as likely to die from opioid overdoses as their civilian counterparts.”

In 2020, the Accelerating Veterans Recovery Outdoors Act was passed in the United States Congress as part of a package called the Veterans Compact Act of 2020. Among other things, this legislation called on the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop programs and policies related to transition assistance suicide care, mental health education and treatment.

More specifically, it required the Veterans Administration to establish a task force to investigate the benefits of outdoor recreation therapy for veterans.  The Veterans Memorial Park Association’s project, in accordance with the Veterans Compact Act of 2020, will be the only one of its kind in Etowah County, and will be available to mental health programs treating veterans throughout Alabama.

Recently, the Veterans Memorial Park Association was awarded a grant for just under $250,000 from the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs, which the association estimates is approximately half of the funding that is needed to develop the park.

“The association’s intent is to not charge veterans and their families for recreational use of the park, but to charge clinical programs and practitioners that partner with the project for the use of the Park to conduct outdoor recreational therapy in the treatment of veterans with mental health issues as a result of their service,” Jensen said.

There are also plans to lease the property for primitive camping and hunting during the hunting season, as a means of continual program funding.

“The Veterans Memorial Park Association hopes this project will be a community, as well as a veterans helping veterans project,” Jensen said. “If you would like to help the association help those veterans in Alabama that are paying a price for their efforts in keeping our Country safe and free, please contact the Veterans Memorial Park Association.”

For more information about the Veterans Memorial Park Association, call 256-549-5458.

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