Exactly 7,040 Americans have been killed in action fighting the War on Terror in Iraq and Afghanistan.
A wall in the shape and colors of the American flag made up of 7,040 dog tags — with blank ones at the end for those brave men and women who will make the ultimate sacrifice in the future — is coming to Leominster to honor them.
The wall will be viewable by the public from the afternoon of Friday, April 28 through Sunday, April 30 around the clock at the Johnny Ro Veteran’s Memorial Park on Mechanic Street.
“I could not think of a more appropriate place to hold this event. This wall really hits close to home. Not only is my brother’s name on the wall and many other people he was deployed with, but also the names that we have on our very own [remembrance walls] down at the park,” said Sarah Roberge, the sister of park namesake Jonathan “Johnny” Roberge. She is on the board of the park committee and is involved in bringing the dog tag wall there.
“We are eager to showcase events such as the dog tag wall and host events to not only to invite people to visit the park and learn about everything it stands for, but also to get the community to come together once again to memorialize” the fallen, she said.
The wall’s home base is Richmond, Virginia and was created by Veterans and Athletes United, which provides retreats and recreational opportunities for wounded veterans.
Bringing the dog tag wall to Leominster was a collaboration between the park and local nonprofit Operation Service, which focuses on veterans in the community through programs like free Christmas trees for soldiers and hosting the traveling Vietnam War wall, the Wall That Heals.
“The [park] honors all the Massachusetts heroes, the [wall] honors the United States heroes, so it makes perfect sense to have the wall at the park as it brings it all into perspective,” said Diane Beaudoin, who is on the board of directors for both Operation Service and the park.
They originally requested to host the dog tag wall three years ago but had to delay it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To sponsor the wall, they had to re-apply, pay for it to travel to Leominster, organize the logistics, and assemble volunteers, but they were determined not to give up.
“When there are opportunities to bring exhibits to our area, we jump on them. We want to be sure that our current servicemen and women and their families and our gold star families know their community is always thinking about them and respect what they do to protect our freedom. Memorials like this are a reminder to all that freedom isn’t free and the sacrifices made by our U.S. Military and their families need to be honored,” said Joe Firmani, Director of Operation Service.
On Friday, April 28, there will be a motorcycle escort for the dog tag wall from Worcester to Leominster, with biker groups Patriot Guard Riders and Leominster Harley Davidson, plus individual riders, including many veterans. Residents will come out to fly a flag and cheer on the riders as they drive through Boylston, Sterling, and Leominster.
A ceremony will take place on Saturday at 11 am with Alan Swartz singing the National Anthem, the Blue Star Mothers leading the Pledge of Allegiance, speakers, and a wreath laying.
Roberge said they would like “all generations to come and learn about such an important part of our history” and “want to draw attention to the dog tag wall as many people are not aware that such a thing exists.”
She added, “Considering how many names that are on this wall, I’m sure it is going to hit close to home with a lot of people … We want guests to take full advantage of all hours that the wall will be visiting. Visitors who may want a more private experience can take advantage of the late night hours when it tends to be quieter. And those who don’t mind a more public experience can take advantage of the daytime hours.”
Roberge also said Leominster is a patriotic city full of veterans and other residents who show support for the troops. The park also has a statue of Johnny Roberge, a tank, and other displays in honor of living and deceased veterans and gold star families, who are the relatives of those killed in action.
“It is a tremendous feeling to honor our fallen from all wars” and make sure they are never forgotten, Beaudoin said. “It gives me a sense of pride to be involved with both of these organizations as I know we do some good to just be there for all of our heroes. There is a deep sense of gratitude to those that signed that blank check to serve our country, and I feel we need to do what we can to show appreciation.”
The dog tag wall goes to Connecticut next as it continues up and down the East Coast. There is a replica wall by VAU that travels west of the Mississippi.
Find out more about the dog tag wall at vetsau.com, Operation Service at operationservice.net, and the park on Facebook @JohnnyRoPark.