PUNTA GORDA — Despite local veteran support, a plan was ended Wednesday to relocate a Vietnam-era “Huey” helicopter to Veterans Park in Punta Gorda.
At the meeting, the City Council voted 3-2 denying a request to move the Bell UH-1 Iroquois Huey helicopter from its current location at the Military Heritage Museum to the park.
The city was not being asked to pay for moving the helicopter.
The organizers’ goal was to have the Huey as a display alongside the Vietnam Memorial Wall of Southwest Florida, a scaled-down replica of the wall in Washington, D.C.
“It is more than appropriate to have the Huey there to round it (the Veterans Park) all out and show the complete (Vietnam) story,” veteran Bill Akins said.
“There is no better symbol of the Vietnam War more than that Huey,” said veteran Phil Menendez.
Gus Hawkins purchased the helicopter in June as a donation to the Vietnam Memorial Wall of Southwest Florida organization for Veterans Park, at the entrance to Laishley Park, 120 Laishley Court.
“The Vietnam Wall (of SWF) is the best place possible for the Huey,” Hawkins told The Daily Sun after the meeting. “We’ve been working with city staff for months and every question asked, we promptly and diligently answered...I’m surprised to hear the questions (proposed by the City Council).”
Mayor Lynne Matthews, along with Vice Mayor Debby Carey and Council Member Nancy Prafke, thought there were too many unknowns to approve the project at this point.
“I’ve talked with at least four-dozen people since this all started and I would say 95% of the comments I received were not to put it at the site,” Matthews said at the meeting.
Matthews said people were concerned about liability if someone is hurt on it.
“Once the Huey is located in the park, our liability has to cover it with insurance. The ongoing maintenance of it is another issue,” Matthews said.
Carey said she received comments from veterans citing potential mental health issues related to the Huey.
“A gentleman came up to me and said that when he drives down West Marion Avenue (by the Military Heritage Museum), and sees the helicopter, it ‘brings back so many horrible memories’ and that he has trouble sleeping for a week,” Carey said.
“I have another person that said most of the people that are listed on the wall either lost their lives in that helicopter or shortly after they jumped out the door, so ‘Please don’t make us remember that,’” she added.
Veteran Steve Cornwell, who helped raise funds for the project, told The Daily Sun that upkeep for the Huey would not have been an issue.
“There are so many veteran groups (in the area), I don’t think that maintenance of it would be a problem at all,” Cornwell said. “If they don’t want people to have access to it because they’re afraid of liability, a fence around that would be very easy to have.”
Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Dick Carr, Vietnam Memorial Wall of SWFL president, has been working with Hawkins since the start of the project.
During his presentation to the City Council on Wednesday, Carr said they had hoped to place the Huey on the southeast corner of the park.
Matthews also was concerned about security issues.
“If it was going to be in the park I could support it if it was on the far left side or up on a pedestal behind the Vietnam Wall as it was originally talked about,” she said. “I would like to see it in a more secure area if in the park at all.”
Carr told The Daily Sun that it can be difficult for people to understand the connection the Huey has to those who fought during the war.
“As a young lieutenant U.S. Air Force pilot, I (saw) the broken bodies and limbs missing of our young men,” Carr said. “It was these scenes and more that compelled me to want to put the Huey and the (Vietnam) Wall together.
“Anywhere else, it is a standalone artifact that cannot convey its life-saving missions and honor the few who were not saved.”
Going forward, Hawkins said it’s too soon to say what the next step will be.
“I’m willing to work with anybody and everybody, but right now I have more questions than answers,” he said. “The whole thing is very disappointing”