Local veterans are asking that U.S. 8 spanning northern Wisconsin be named in honor of Americans who served in conflicts the U.S. was involved in during the past three decades in the Middle East.
At the start of a Vietnam Veterans Day celebration on Tuesday in Eau Claire, former state Sen. Dave Zien introduced a proposal to honor veterans of wars in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“This will be a monumental effort to get this passed into law,” Zien said to a room full of veterans gathered at VFW Post 305, 1300 Starr Ave. “No other state has done this.”
Himself a Vietnam War veteran, Zien is working with current lawmakers to dub the 280-mile stretch of highway in Wisconsin as “The Mid-East Conflicts and Global War on Terrorism Highway” in recognition of the latest generations of veterans.
State Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, said his office will work with other legislators in the Chippewa Valley to draft a bill and support to a bill giving U.S. 8 the honorary name.
“These small things go a long way with our veterans,” said James, himself a veteran of the Gulf War.
There would be very little cost involved in adding the name, aside from some signs and including it in updates to official state maps, he said.
The process of bestowing the honorary name for the highway would require a bill to pass both the state Senate and Assembly, and then require the governor’s signature.
“This could be the 36th named highway in the state of Wisconsin,” Zien said.
The state already has 35 stretches of highways that are named in honor of Wisconsin historical figures, military units, veterans of other conflicts, and historical events.
For example, U.S. 10 between Manitowoc and the Minnesota state line has been designated as the Vietnam War Veterans Memorial Highway since 1987.
Kyle Craemer, who was deployed twice to the Persian Gulf and had tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps, handed out his statement of support for the honorary name for U.S. 8 at Tuesday’s veterans gathering.
Seeing the conflicts named in road signs is an opportunity for people to reflect on the personal sacrifices made by those who served, regardless of how politics of the time can portray those conflicts, he said.
Craemer gave credit to Zien and others who served in Vietnam who have advocated for recognition and benefits for themselves and other veterans.
March 29 is remembered as Vietnam Veterans Day because on that date in 1973, the last U.S. combat troops left Vietnam. Nine million Americans served in that war and 58,000 of their names appear on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.
Tuesday’s celebration at the VFW in Eau Claire included a lunch for veterans as well as speeches, special guests, displays of historical weapons and advocacy for various issues affecting veterans.
“This day is very important to remember us,” said Lt. Nao Shoua Xiong, a member of the Wisconsin Lao Veterans of America who spoke on Tuesday in Eau Claire.
One of the causes that Zien and others urged local legislators to take on is expanding the Wisconsin Veterans Home at Chippewa Falls.
State Rep. Rob Summerfield, R-Bloomer, said at Tuesday’s celebration that expanding the veterans home will be a challenge, but that local legislators are already asking Gov. Tony Evers to make it happen.
Summerfield, James and state Sen. Kathy Bernier, R-Lake Hallie, sent a letter on Tuesday to Evers to use proceeds from the state selling 89 acres of land in Chippewa Falls toward a new 72-bed wing for the veterans home.
Brian Westrate, who is challenging James in August’s Republican primary for the 23rd state Senate seat that Bernier is retiring from, was among the guest speakers at Tuesday’s gathering.
Westrate recalled the cold reception his father and other Vietnam veterans faced when they returned to the U.S. after serving in that war.
“We’ve come a long way as a nation and we need to honor those who served in recent wars better than we did those who served in Vietnam,” Westrate said.