Lenny Collins: The Story Behind the Story
- September 23, 2015
- / Emmalee Sutton
- / Post Tags
On a chilly December day in 1987, Lenny Collins made a courageous decision to face something he’d adamantly tried to putbehind him. Lenny is a Vietnam War Veteran. Faced with the traumas and stigmas of war upon his return, he actively and vehemently disregarded his identity as a Marine Corps Lance Corporal and has gone as far as to put NA on applications that asked for Veteran status. Lenny and his wife, Gloria, had recently moved to Pensacola after a brief visit with friend and fellow Marine, Rusty Davis. This move proved to be a fresh start for the Collins, and Lenny was able to put his past behind him. However, one winter day would completely change that, in a very powerful and beautiful way.
The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and was brought to Pensacola in December of 1987 by local Veterans group, Vietnam Veterans of Northwest Florida. The memorial was put in Seville Square, and until this time, Collins had not known of its existence. George Dronback, a close friend and fellow Vietnam Veteran, had come to Pensacola to work with Collins in real estate, and was persistent in trying to persuade Collins to see the memorial. Finally, on a dreary Wednesday evening in December, Collins agreed. Upon seeing the memorial at a distance, he was faced with years of suppressed memories and emotions, thinking of friends he had lost in Vietnam. He could not bear to get any closer.
Sitting on the steps of a restaurant across the street from the memorial, he was met with empathy from the restaurant owner, a woman who had lost her brother in Vietnam. Bonding over the tragedy of loss, Collins found courage. He called his wife and boldly stated that they and their children were to visit the Wall that very evening. Everything changed for Collins that night. He found healing in facing his darkest moments; the memorial helped to draw out emotion in a safe environment, with community support.
Another event centered around the Moving Wall assured Collins that this memorial was something of utmost significance to not only himself, but to many Veterans in the community. The night before the Wall was transported to its next location, a candlelight vigil was held. An outpour of emotion by those in attendance touched Collins in a way that instilled in him a purpose and a mission: to create something permanent in our community that will provide the same healing that was encouraged by the Moving Wall. Speaking audibly about his wish, he was overheard by a man who agreed with him and gave him his business card. That man was Mayor Vince Whibbs.
The following January, Collins contacted Mayor Whibbs and the campaign for a Veterans Memorial in an area that could be designated as a Veterans Park began. The Vietnam Veterans of Northwest Florida created a committee that was chaired by Collins and Vietnam Veteran, Nelson Wellborn. The search for a location was perhaps one of the most difficult challenges the committee faced, but a nearly unanimous vote secured the current location and city hall was defeated. Due to legality, the committee was soon transformed into the Wall South Foundation.
Members of the Foundation worked diligently over the span of the next two years dedicating their time to various fundraisers including car washes, selling t-shirts, and putting on concerts to raise the funds to build the memorial. Senator W.C. Childers was largely in support of the construction of the memorial and park; he believed that Vietnam Veterans were worthy of such a memorial and needn’t to work so tirelessly for the memorial they deserved. The senator made a request to the Florida Legislature that $1.1 million be appropriated for the construction of the Park, beginning with the Wall South.
For Collins, the Wall South shows that Vietnam Veterans have the ability to overcome adversity. The memorial serves as a reminder of all those who were lost; however, it is also an example of the close bond Vietnam Veterans share and that when together, they can accomplish anything.
Today, the park has evolved into a beautiful scenic area that serves as a prime location for walking, jogging, bike riding, lunch breaks, picnics, and even the downtown Segway tour. There are now ten park memorials, and more are being considered.A beautiful garden and serene pond area make visits to the park an even more comforting experience. There is a gazebo in the middle of the park and inside is a kiosk that can tell the whereabouts of a name, year, or location of a person’s enlistment to help locate their name on the Wall South.
A very special person to this effort is Pensacola resident, Art Giberson. He has been a true asset to the Veterans Memorial Park Foundation since the desire for its inception began. Giberson authored the book, "Wall South,” that tells about the story behind the story of the memorial and includes his own photography throughout the entire campaign to bring the Wall South to fruition. A talented photojournalist and also a Vietnam Veteran, Giberson continues to celebrate the Veteran community in Pensacola and is finalizing the republication of Wall South, which will chronicle the story behind the Wall South and the Park’s evolution since unveiling the only permanent replica of the Vietnam Memorial.
Art Giberson for his time and photos. Stay tuned for updates regarding his upcoming book release.
Gloria Collins for sitting with me on a rainy day at the park to give me the heartwarming interview that inspired this article.
Lenny Collins for being the story behind the story and his efforts along with all those on the committee, government officials, and anyone who took the time to donate time or funds to the creation of Veterans Memorial Park, beginning with the Wall South.