Veterans Memorial Walk at Bryant Commons is near completion with the help of soldiers of the 92nd Engineer Battalion of Fort Stewart who have been working at the site as training for 14 months.
To say thank you for the work, the Hinesville Military Affairs Committee organized a luncheon Thursday at Bryant Commons.
More than 300 soldiers and their families came out to eat, play with their dogs and listen to music.
There was a lot to eat, all donated by businesses; Bojangles, El Cazador Mexican Restaurant, Chick-fil-A, Ole Times Buffet, Izola’s Country Café, Domino’s Pizza and Panera Bread.
GeoVista, MWR and Walthourville Meat Market provided food as well.
Panera Bread has donated approximately $80,000 toward the walk. Panera fed soldiers twice every day, breakfast and lunch, for 14 months, said Christina Anthony, HMAC member and Veterans Memorial Walk board member.
"When we first started in August 2016, the soldiers were breaking a lot and leaving," Anthony said. "So Panera contributed food so they could work a 9-to-5 job and stay here. It was great."
Anthony also praised Ricky Hearn of HMAC who was at the site with the soldiers every day.
"If it wasn’t for Ricky and the 92nd, it wouldn’t have gotten done," she said. "Ricky stepped out of nowhere and said he’ll be here from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day."
Jeff Ashmen, co-chairman of Veterans Memorial Walk, said without the Army’s help the project wouldn’t be near completion.
"We’re very close the finish line," Ashmen said. "We’re about 90 percent complete. The pavers are on order and they will be coming in very shortly. You’ll see transformation of the Veterans Memorial Walk over the next two weeks — greenery, landscaping, trees, the pavers. The flag holders are up now and we’ll have all the flags raised at the dedication ceremony."
A ribbon cutting will kick-off the annual Veterans Salute on Nov. 4 at Bryant Commons.
Alex Dillon, commander of the 554th Engineer Construction Co., said his unit learned how to place and set concrete, read plans, how to work with contractors and other companies. They also developed an understanding of grading, drainage and water flow and dealing with unstable soil.
When Hurricane Irma hit in September the work at Veterans Memorial was slowed down. The ground was too saturated to place the concrete.
"Other than that, the soldiers already put together a plan to help the flow of water to keep it from destroying the site," Dillon said. "So we didn’t have any destruction because of grading and the stabilization of the soil from our guys."
Dillon appreciated the luncheon and said it boosted soldiers’ morale.
The 526th Engineer Construction Company has also worked at the site and will continue to grade, cleanup and prepare the site for landscapers.
Dillon said there was healthy competition between the two companies to see who could do their work better.
Jim Thomas, co-chairman of the Veterans Memorial Walk, said the luncheon was the "culmination for the Army."
"It’s been a collaboration that we’re very proud of," Thomas said. "These young men and women work out here in the sun and rain and everything to help us get to this point. From a community effort standpoint I am very proud of Hinesville, the military, our civilians, friends in business and restaurants."
Thomas recalled from his Army days doing projects called "domestic action" where soldiers would go into a small town and do projects. He believes it is the first community project the Army has done here in a long time.
"The Army should be commended for supporting us during this whole project," he said. "Many times they could’ve taken these guys away for training but they kept them with us."
Col. John Stover of the 92nd Engineer Battalion has been with the project since the Army got involved in 2015.
He thinks the project is both a great way to give back to the community and an opportunity for training.
"I think it’s an awesome way to give back to the community, to veterans and to fathers and grandfathers that served," Stover said.
He believes the soldiers have become more proficient and better trained through their work.
"I think they feel proud about what they’re doing and will be able to tell their children ‘Look at what I did. I helped build that,’" Stover said.
Stover said it is the first time in a longtime where the "federal military has gone into a local community for a project."
He said he’s gotten calls from other military bases asking how the project came together.
"I hope this will happen in other communities because this is bigger than Hinesville," Stover said.