Orange County

Orange County service members hold groundbreaking for new veterans memorial

An artist's rendering of the proposed Orange County Veterans Memorial in Chapel Hill.
An artist's rendering of the proposed Orange County Veterans Memorial in Chapel Hill. Veterans Memorial Committee

Orange County’s military contributions to America began before the Revolutionary War, when an uprising between Piedmont farmers and British colonial officials erupted in 1765. Nearby Hillsborough was the epicenter of the rebellion, known as the Regulators Movement, after farmers who were unable to pay their taxes had their property seized.

The farmers closed down the courthouse in Hillsborough and dragged colonial officials through the streets. Minor skirmishes ensued for nearly six years until early May in 1771, when North Carolina’s militia defeated the Regulators at the Battle of Alamance. One month later, on June 9, 1771, six of the Regulators were hanged in Hillsborough.

“That helped spark our Revolutionary War of Independence,” said Lee Heavlin, a retired Master Chief Petty Officer who served in the U.S. Navy between 1963 and 1993. “They were hung right here in Hillsborough.”

Heavlin was among the coterie of retired and active service members, clergy, town and county officials who gathered for the groundbreaking for a new Veterans Memorial at a tree-shaded site near Southern Orange County’s Human Services Complex on Homestead Road.

The memorial, to be constructed by two Chapel Hill landscape architects, will be located in a grove of walnut, poplar, oak and magnolia trees. An arching gravel walkway will include a serpentine stone wall where the words “valor,” “sacrifice,” “freedom,” and “family” will be prominently featured. A flagpole with a granite base will sit at the apex of the circle, with wildflowers in an open “field of remembrance” directly behind the memorial.

Jim Merritt, a former Chapel Hill town councilman and retired U.S. Army veteran who served one tour in Vietnam, said the memorial gives the county an opportunity to provide “historical and educational updates” about residents’ contributions to America’s military efforts.

“On the monument walls there will be scriptures that explains what happened, when it happened and which branches of service was involved,” he said. “Also, there will be a kiosk at the entrance of the memorial to explain what years the wars were fought, where and when since the Revolutionary War.”

Plans for the memorial began about two years ago when some of the area’s military veterans would meet at Breadman’s, a popular downtown Chapel Hill eatery. One of the veterans started sharing with the others a dream for a local veterans memorial. That turned into a question among the veterans.

“Why don’t we have something?” Heavlin said.

Turns out, a group of local middle-schoolers working on a history project were asking the same thing. Two Orange County commissioners, Barry Jacobs and Renee Price, who, according to Heavlin, echoed the same question.

Heavlin is now the chairman of the veterans memorial fund-raising committee.

“To the veterans committee, that seemed like a voice from Heaven,” he said. “Our team got all excited. Voices from Heaven are a good thing.”

Orange County donated land for the site, while Chapel Hill officials have provided additional support.

“We wanted to recognize our veterans, and Orange County provided us with a beautiful site,” said retired Navy Capt. Bruce Runberg, who is co-chair of the fund-raising committee.

Still, the committee is counting on private donations to complete the project.

Retired U.S. Marine Maj. Everette “Bud” Hampton was among the veterans who attended the groundbreaking. Hampton, a 93-year-old World War II and Korean War veteran, survived of one of the nation’s most iconic battles, at Iwo Jima.

“I lasted 11 days on that island,” he said at the ceremony’s end Monday. Hampton nodded and didn’t hesitate when asked why was it important to have a veterans memorial in Orange County.

“It’s something where we can honor all of those soldiers who didn’t come back home with us,” he said.

Thomasi McDonald: 919-829-4533, @thomcdonald

How to help

The Orange County Veterans Committee, together with Orange County's Community Giving Fund, is working to raise $300,000 for the memorial. Make checks out to the Orange County Community Giving Fund and put “Veterans Memorial” in the memo line. Mail to: Orange County Community Giving Fund, Financial Services, P.O. Box 8181, Hillsborough, N.C., 27278