Retired Army Lt. Col. Richard A. Lester, left, and Atlanta History Center President and CEO Sheffield Hale look over the Army seal May 13 at the nearly finished Veterans Park at the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta. (Jason Getz / Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
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ATLANTA — It seemed like a mission impossible, but Richard A. Lester believed it could be done.
A month ago, the retired Army lieutenant colonel had a brainstorm that the Atlanta History Center’s dedication of its redone Veterans Park on Memorial Day would be more memorable if it could include a “Sacred Soil” ceremony. Lester’s idea was to sprinkle dirt collected from the battlegrounds of every major conflict that America has engaged in, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan.
Fort Benning had orchestrated its own Sacred Soil ceremony when dedicating the Soldier Center and parade ground at the National Infantry Museum in 2009, the only such event of which Lester and other Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association members had ever heard. But the soil spread at that ceremony just outside Columbus was limited to places where infantry troops had fought.
Lester, who commanded aviation and armor units during a varied 26-year Army career that included two Vietnam tours of duty, was thinking bigger. The only problem was, Fort Benning officials told him they had prepared two years for its ceremony. Lester had all of four weeks.
When he mentioned his idea to Max Torrence, whom he’s known since their helicopter-flying days in Vietnam, his Army comrade cautioned, “Rick, you better look at the calendar.”
“Yeah, but I think we ought to give it a shot,” Lester, 65, responded.
He had been tapped as the ceremony’s keynote speaker as a result of his key role in helping plan a version of Veterans Park that opened at the Atlanta History Center in 2000 as well as the larger and more ambitious one opening this weekend.
Aware that the center had first considered, then rejected the idea of a Medal of Honor winner or astronaut as speaker in favor of someone with more intimate involvement, Lester felt humbled by the assignment. “I’m still trying to figure out how I went from worker to keynote speaker,” he said, joking that he “would’ve gone with the astronaut.”
Yet as the son of an Air Force veteran and father of an Air Force captain, he yearned to “do something special” for attending veterans and their families.
Torrence encouraged him to at least keep the idea quiet until Lester could see how much soil he could turn up post haste. If he succeeded, then he could propose it to history center brass.
Within a week, after he contacted yet another Vietnam helicopter pilot, who now works with a military tour group, Lester had received soil from nine hot spots, from Vietnam to Tinian Island’s North Field (where the Enola Gay departed for its bombing mission to Japan), sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy, even Hanoi Hilton wall fragments.
He quickly widened the net, reaching out to the 48th Assault Helicopter Company, Special Operations Association, Vietnam Helicopter Flight Crew Network, National WWII Museum in New Orleans, commercial airlines, missionaries and others.
Emboldened, he and Torrence “briefed” history center planners on the idea to “consecrate” the park.
Sheffield Hale, who had made the Veterans Park reboot a priority when he became history center president and CEO early last year, approved. Hale, who had secured $500,000 from the Home Depot Foundation for the project, also suggested that the history center add a time capsule containing the soil samples so that park visitors for generations to come would literally walk over that consecrated earth.
“I think the Sacred Soil really roots this place in history and makes it a special place from Day One,” Hale said this week as the time capsule was placed in the muddy ground, to be covered by an 8-foot-diameter seal of the United States carved of Elberton granite.
Lester, who could not even estimate the number of calls and emails he’s made and received in recent weeks, temporarily lost his voice a week ago. Still recovering this week, he said that it was a worthwhile trade.
As the unusual special deliveries arrived at his home and at the history center, Lester, who had collected soil at every place he was stationed in Vietnam after reading about a Civil War soldier who had done that so he could tell his family about his duty, was visited by some reveries.
Holding sand from Omaha Beach in Normandy, where his father, Stanley C. Lester, earned a Silver Star for his heroism, he recalled his dad’s stories of the horror and their four attempts to watch the film “Saving Private Ryan” together before finally making it all the way through. Unpacking the sample from Saipan, he thought of an uncle who was killed by Japanese sniper fire there.
For the Memorial Day dedication, the soils will be collected in a helmet that had been worn by Col. John Ruggles of the 4th Infantry Division at Utah Beach on D-Day and then will be scattered by veterans around the park’s flagpole under Old Glory. Ruggles died in 1999.
“Each packet of soil represents a place, a time and a mission where the sons and daughters of this great country showed their commitment to the values we treasure,” Lester said. “It is good to recognize their service.”