Politics aside, and excluding those with military experience, most would agree that patriotism has taken a nosedive during the last decade. Compared to decades of past generations, these last 10 years have been relatively peaceful and prosperous, so the old adage “you do not realize what you have until it is gone” serves as a poignant reminder. Freedom is all too easy to take for granted.
Gary Steele, the founder of the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame, saw this personally in his own family when he took his grandkids to a museum a few years ago. “I realized they were lacking an understanding of history, especially that of the military, my service and their family’s service,” Mr. Steele recalls. “It is sort of in our family’s blood to serve this country.”
Before this country was formed, Mr. Steele’s family escaped religious persecution in France and came to America, where Mr. Steele’s grandfather eventually served as a lieutenant in the American Revolution under George Washington. Mr. Steele’s father and uncle served in World War II, with his uncle surviving the Battle of the Bulge, and his four brothers are Vietnam veterans. Mr. Steele himself volunteered to serve in Vietnam at the age of 19 with his pregnant wife at home.
Now, Mr. Steele loves to tell kids the youngest Texan to serve in World War II was 12 years old and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. “Our kids just do not have that patriotism now because they have everything handed to them, if you will,” Mr. Steele says. “So, the only way we are going to be able to preserve patriotism is by getting out there and reminding them … getting them away from televisions and computers and letting them realize how we lived, how our grandparents lived and the sacrifices we have made so they can do the things they do today. If you do not preserve it, you lose it.”
So, in an effort to turn the tide of patriotism in Texas, Mr. Steele started looking for ways to ensure we never forget. After realizing many surrounding states had programs dedicated to recognizing all their veterans, he was surprised to learn Texas did not. So, he formed the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame with the mission “to educate and preserve the history of our Texas veterans.”
The organization will honor Texas veterans, either born or having resided for seven years in Texas, in four categories. The first category is for valor – those who have served and received medals for heroic action. Mr. Steele says Texas currently has 82 Medal of Honor recipients dating back to the Civil War. Secondly, service – those who have served in the military and went on to make significant contributions at the local, state or national levels. An example would be President George Bush, Senior. Support – those individuals or organizations that make a difference in veterans’ lives, such as the local Veterans of Foreign Wars. And, the fourth category is patriotism – the purpose of this award is to “locate, document and recognize living and deceased veterans.”
Veterans recognized by the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame will receive a Patriot Medallion gravestone marker with a QR code. “No other state I know of is doing this,” Mr. Steele says. “If you are looking at a grave and you want to know about that veteran, you can scan that QR code and read about that veteran while you are standing there. Our goal is to do profiles and place medallions for all the veterans that we can. Texas has 1.8 million who have served since and including World War I, and 1.5 million are still living. So, we have a big challenge, but we are off to a good start.”
In addition to honoring veterans in those four categories, the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame is working with the University of North Texas (UNT) to preserve another piece of Texas veteran history.
According to a 2019 Historic Denton publication, “The completion of World War II created a new type of student eager to exchange their military service for higher education. The flood of former soldiers to Denton in 1946 to attend North Texas State Teachers College (now UNT) created growth and housing stress for these nontraditional students. The college purchased an empty three-acre lot at 308 Bradley Street to provide housing for veterans.”
From 1946-1960, this three-acre lot became known as “Veterans Village,” and according to Historic Denton, had its own commissary, playground, mayor and council. The bulk of Veterans Village was comprised of 50 square Army-surplus squad huts, nicknamed “hutments,” spaced about six feet apart with small front yards. The interior of a hutment contained “a kitchenette, a bathroom and portable plywood walls that could be arranged to partition areas as bedrooms and living space.” The make-shift streets were named after students of the college who had become Hollywood starlets.
In 1960, the contract between the college and the federal government that had created Veterans Village lapsed, and the hutments were razed. In 1961, seven buildings known as the Bradley Street Apartments stood in its place. And now, according to Mr. Steele, “it is a vacant field again.”
Now, the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame is collaborating with the City of Denton Parks and Recreation Department to create a memorial park known as Veterans Village Park on that same property.
Another goal of the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame is to eventually find a permanent museum location. “There are 327,000 veterans in North Texas, so we definitely want to keep it here,” Mr. Steele says. “It has to be the right place and the right time, and Frisco would be the right place. We are in no hurry, but it would make our job a lot easier if we had a location.”
When asked how much funding he needs, he replies, “I really do not know. We do not know if we are going to have to build, buy, rent or if somebody is going to give us something for free.” But, he adds, if every person gave a dollar for one of the 1.8 million veterans in Texas since World War II, they would have a good starting point. In addition to housing physical memorabilia, they are also visualizing a virtual reality component to help visitors understand what some veterans have experienced and to draw kids in to learn more. “I can tell you it is like the old Field of Dreams … if you build it, they will come,” Mr. Steele says, as he alludes to a similar effect when he tours the country with old military vehicles he has restored.
Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney stated that even though plans for a permanent location are very preliminary, “The concept is in line with what we are trying to do as a city, as far as telling stories and showing we value our veterans.”
In the meantime, the Texas Veterans Hall of Fame travels in their air-conditioned trailer and sets up a mobile 22-by-eight-foot display listing a military war timeline, Texas’ involvement and related statistics for anyone who wants to learn more.
“This is our passion now,” Mr. Steele says. “It is going to be something we can look back on and say we gave this to the state of Texas. We helped them preserve part of history.”
Mr. Steele can be reached at 940.391.9626 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and more information can be found at texasveteranshalloffame.org.