PAYING RESPECT: The South Austin Neighborhood Association commemorated Veterans Day at Austin Veterans Peace Garden for the first time last week. | IGOR STUDENKOV/Contributor

Falling snow and cold weather didn’t stop 15 veterans and five members of South Austin Neighborhood Association (SANA) from marking Veterans Day at Austin Veterans Peace Garden, 5413 W. Madison St.

This was the kind of event the garden was built for, and the first time it hosted a Veterans Day ceremony since it opened this summer. Veterans raised the American flag and the POW-MIA flag, and Murray Williams, co-president of the recently formed Austin Veterans Community Organization (AVCO), gave a speech emphasizing the importance of remembering the veterans who didn’t make it home. 

Because of the weather, the attendees didn’t stay outside for long. But all the veterans who spoke to this newspaper said it was important to commemorate Veterans Day. AVCO and SANA are currently planning a Christmas party for Austin veterans, but the details weren’t settled by deadline. 

The peace garden was meant to be a place of contemplation and a place to honor Austin’s veterans. While it was originally supposed to open in November 2018, in time for this year’s Veterans Day, it ultimately opened in June 14, 2019. 

SANA treasurer and U.S Air Force veteran Terry Redmond said Austin veterans often met there to hang out and barbecue. In September, they decided to formalize the group, and AVCO was born. Since then, the group has been meeting at MacArthur’s Restaurant, located across the street from the garden, at 5412 W. Madison St., every Wednesday at noon. The group wants to reach out to veterans of more recent wars, connect all veterans to benefits and resources, and generally provide support. 

Williams served in the army during the tail end of the Vietnam War. He and the other veterans appreciated the garden for several reasons.

“[It’s a place where] they can come and talk about their service and any kind of problem they have, [which] they don’t want to discuss with regular civilians because we veterans are there for each other and know what we’ve been through,” Williams said, noting that the garden helps the community by providing a calm, peaceful place for people to gather. It gives residents a chance to meet veterans. And the fact that Chicago police officers and other law enforcement officials stop by the garden as well, it creates opportunities for positive interactions that may not otherwise be possible.

“It’s an outlet for the community and the police to sit down and converse,” Williams said. “There’s so much conflict between police and the black community. When [residents] see us talking, they have hope that not everything is bad.”

Redmond said veterans and SANA members agreed it was important to do something for Veterans Day, cold weather or no cold weather. 

“And so, on 11/11, at 11 o’clock, we raised the POW-MIA flag in honor of all solders who are still missing in action,” she said. 

“I gave a little speech about POWs and MIAs, that they’re never going to be forgotten,” Williams said, adding that families of prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action are always welcome at the garden.

Redmond said that, after the speech, everybody headed to MacArthur’s.

“Everybody sat around and talked a little bit,” she said. “Some veterans, some soldiers talked about their experience in Vietnam and so forth. And one guy brought a picture of himself from the day he enlisted.”

Williams said he appreciated the event.

“It’s making connections to the veterans within our ward,” he said. “It’s an outstanding event, and I think it served purpose of getting the message out that veterans in the Austin community recognize we still have POWs and MIAs [who haven’t come home].”

John Tibbs, of Cicero, served in the army from 1986 to 1991. He said he participated in the ceremony because it was important to honor POWs, and it gave him a chance to connect with area veterans.

“[Veterans] know what it is not to be able to make it back or be captured and not released, not being able to contact anyone,” Tibbs said. “So it’s one of those things you respect as a military person. People back home, people just watch on TV, so they don’t get the essence.”