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The Highground Veterans Memorial Park: It Started with a Dream

Nov 12, 2022 02:14PM ● By Steve Sears

The Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville, Wisconsin

Photos courtesy of Tom Miller

When you look at an overhead photo of the Highground Veterans Memorial Park, the first thing that catches your eye is the American flag flying high over the property.

“Yes, it is,” says Tom Miller, whose dream of having a site for veterans to be remembered in his home state has been realized. “That (the flag) was the first thing we put at the Highground.”

Jack Swender

 For the current East Hanover resident, it all started on a Vietnam battlefield, when Miller held in his arms the body of his good friend and partner, Jack Swender, who had been killed by gunfire. “Jack, he had a baby face, and he was a really nice man who would do anything for anybody. He was really my partner on the radio; I’d either carry the radio or he’d carry the radio. Just a great kid.” Miller pauses briefly, then continues. “I started thinking about it on my trip out to Washington D.C. in 1982 for the dedication of the national Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” says Miller, who lived in Wisconsin at the time. “We went all the way down to Washington from Wisconsin, and I said, ‘People shouldn't have to travel that far. Let's do something to remember Jack close by, so that's when we started.”

A Board of Directors was selected in 1984, the Highground Veterans Memorial Park was incorporated in 1985, and a location of 500,000 acres was found in Neillsville.

Chris Pettis has been the Highground Veterans Memorial Park Executive Director for a little more than two years. He and his staff welcome roughly 55,000 to 60,000 visitors a year to the site. “Our mission is to honor, educate, and heal,” says Pettis, “and the opportunity for anyone to be able to come to the park and reflect back on their service. It’s a place of healing and remembrance. Families come here and have the ability to honor their loved one and in a little bit different way, and of course we're here to provide education to anybody. A lot of times, you drive through smaller towns and you see these small veteran memorials honoring veterans that are no longer with us. We do that too, but we also take care of those that are still with us.”

The Highground offers veteran retreats, male and female, at two different times of the year, has started a guitar lesson program where they buy guitars for veterans and pay for an instructor to come in and help vets learn how to play the instrument (“Hopefully they can be able to heal from the music,” Pettis says), and the Highground also has a family peer-to-peer support group that is in its fifth month and just keeps growing. For further pondering, there are also four miles of walking trails through the woods.

Pettis provides an update on the site for 2023. “If all goes well, we’re going to be breaking ground on our new Welcome Center. Right now, we're an outdoor park. We have a museum that is a residence that we've converted that we have severely outgrown due to the wonderful donations of family, and artifacts and military memorabilia. And then, if we're having inclement weather and we're having an event, there’s no place for anybody to go. This 12,000 square foot Welcome Center is going to have our gift shop in it, our museum, indoor meeting space for roughly 150 people, a small chapel, and - something that's very important to me - a counseling room. If I have a veteran that's here that's in crisis, I've got a place to take that individual and have a conversation with them while I'm waiting on a mental health professional. And at the end of the day, I'd like to have a clinician on staff, or I'd like to be able to offer that room up to any traveling clinician that would be interested in utilizing that facility as a means of therapy for any of their patients.”

Miller is proudly amazed at how his dream has grown. “I didn't realize how big it became until the other day, when I was looking down at all my notes and pictures and everything else, trying to get something for a book that they're publishing,” says Miller. “The staff, Board of Directors, and the volunteers made it happen. They all came together. They're all dedicated, especially the staff and the volunteers. They're a phenomenal bunch. It’s at the center of the state which was one of the important parts. It's really just top notch.”

The Highground Veterans Memorial Park is located at W7031 W Ridge Road in Neillsville, Wisconsin. Visit for more information.