The Rev. Robert Bowser, a U.S. Navy veteran, was among those applauding Monday during the unveiling of a purple signpost on the side of Northwest Eighth Avenue in Gainesville.
The sign on the post shows solemn figures looking over an endless collection of tombstones. It reads: “Memorial Mile. Established 2007. Veterans for Peace. Chapter 014.”
Bowser, 90, served in World War II and the Korean War before retiring at the start of the Vietnam War.
“It’s special because it’s recognition,” Bowser said of the city ceremonially renaming the stretch of the avenue between Northwest 23rd Street and Northwest 31st Drive as “Memorial Mile.”
“I can recall when there was no recognition given to service members,” he said.
On each Memorial Day since 2007, the Gainesville chapter of Veterans for Peace has placed a 12-inch ceremonial tombstone for every U.S. soldier who died in Iraq or Afghanistan, said Scott Camil, who founded the chapter in 1987 and serves as its president.
Camil, 73, said he earned two Purple Hearts while serving as a sergeant in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He said he was inspired to place the tombstones after watching a documentary called “Arlington West” and seeing the public respond to a similar display.
“The film was very moving, and I saw how the public responded to the display,” he said.
Camil said he chose the stretch of Eighth Avenue because it is between two parks – Westside Park and Loblolly Woods Nature Park – and is “kind of a peaceful setting.”
Nearly 7,000 tombstones were placed this past Memorial Day, he said.
“We have used Memorial Mile to point out that politicians easily start wars but lack the courage to end war,” Camil said.
The chapter’s vice president, Douglas Bernal, who served two tours of duty in Iraq with the Army, said he proposed to City Commissioner Harvey Ward the idea of renaming part of Eighth Avenue.
“We’re very fortunate locally to have … a supportive community that really embraces this idea that peace isn’t partisan – it’s something that everyone deserves,” Bernal said.
Ward, who secured the City Commission’s official backing, said of renaming the street:
“It seemed like the sort of thing that was an absolute no-brainer for all of us.”
The purple markers feature the same design of the Memorial Mile T-shirts designed by chapter member Susan Hudgens, 60, whose husband is a Vietnam veteran. Hudgens said the design is literal, with grief front and center in the primary figure leaning over one of the markers.
“The face and fist are clenched because grief can be an angry business,” she said.
Earlier Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered a speech at JetBlue Park at Fenway South in Fort Myers. He thanked Vietnam veterans especially and aimed to make amends for neglect they have faced in the past, according to Naples Daily News.
“That was one of the low points in American history,” he said. “So I want to say, ‘Thank you, today.’”
“This city is graced with your presence,” Trump said. “This nation is forever in your debt, and we thank you all.”
Back in Gainesville, Crystal Bowser, 68, a retired child advocate, said the city and chapter’s recognition mirrors the appreciation her father, a former longtime minister in North Carolina, has received from people in Gainesville recently for his service.
“He said for years that never, ever happened,” she said.