Vietnam veteran involved in dispute over Military Honor Park in Coolidge
COOLIDGE, Arizona — A dispute involving a Vietnam veteran over a memorial to fallen soldiers that he created is causing controversy in a small town south of Phoenix.
It began as a heartwarming story that we first told you about back in 2013: When Oscar Rodriguez learned two years earlier that one of his fellow Vietnam War veterans had died, he decided to build a memorial to fallen heroes in his front yard.
“A friend of mine, we were together in Okinawa, then we went to Vietnam. Years later, we came back home,” Rodriguez said. “My son tried to locate this friend of mine to surprise. He found out that he had passed away. That’s what inspired me to start the memorial here at home, just in his honor.”
The Military Honor Park consists of bricks engraved with the names of fallen heroes. “Each one of them, I did one by one, letter by letter, with a tweezer. It took me a year and a half to finish that.”
When people wanted to add their loved ones’ names to the memorial, Rodriguez started charging $25 a brick to cover the cost of an engraver to do the work.
The memorial grew and was home to special events, especially on Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Arizona Sen. John McCain came to see it, as did former Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick and others. There was concern about what would happen to the memorial once the 75-year old Rodriguez passed away.
“The Performing Arts Center and the Artisan Village offered me property to move the park there, and I built the park that we have there now in Coolidge,” Rodriguez said.
The park opened at its new site in 2016, and things were going great. It was a handshake agreement.
Rodriguez said the president of the Artisan Village never mentioned anything about paying to have the memorial at the site. That all changed last year.
“They wanted 30 percent of the donations that the veterans donated for the park,” Rodriguez said.
One person who helped Rodriguez move to the new site was Rick Miller. He’s a board member of the Coolidge Performing Arts Center Foundation, which oversees the Artisan Village.
Miller said the Artisan Village is located in an old school that it was buying from the Coolidge School District — and a $200,000 payment is due. He said the request for 30 percent of the donations is reasonable.
“A lot of our artists do the same thing,” Miller said. “If they’re here and they’re selling art or doing classes, we get 30 percent from these artists to help us fund the facility.”
When Rodriguez objected to the payment, Miller says the fee request was withdrawn.
Meanwhile, both Miller and Rodriguez say that money to pay for the park’s upkeep was funneled through the Artisan Village’s bank account.
Miller said whenever Rodriguez said he needed something for the park, they would get it for him.
But they questioned some of the expenditures. For example, there is no grass in the Military Honor Park, and any nearby grass is maintained by the City of Coolidge. However, documents show that Rodriguez used some of the money to buy a lawnmower that is still at his house. Rodriguez said initial plans for the park included grass but were later changed to gravel.
There’s also the question about a donation box that Miller says was donated to the Park by the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Coolidge.
Miller said that box was placed inside the Military Honor Park.
“Donations were being made in that box, but those donations were not being accounted for in our accounts here,” he said. “We removed the donation box, told [Rodriguez] that we were going to remove it. He filed charges with the Coolidge Police Department against the president of the Performing Arts Center Foundation. Those charges were dropped.”
Miller said there was $4 in the box when they removed it, and that money was put in the bank.
Rodriguez feared that something else would disappear from the park, so he locked it up. The park was closed for a time. The two sides were both hoping to hold a Memorial Day service, so they agreed to take their dispute to arbitration. Both sides agreed that an organization formed by Rodriguez would pay $230 for the use of the Artisan Village’s restrooms and other facilities during the Memorial Day observance.
But it appears that the agreement fell through because of a new twist.
“Because of all of the negative statements made on social media, the Performing Arts Center Foundation board said that we’re going to take over the management of [the park],” Miller said.
The foundation and the Artisan Village got rid of Rodriguez’s lock and reopened the park, but Rodriguez is not allowed on the property. Police were called when Rodriguez and his wife arrived to remove some plants that weren’t being maintained. They were eventually allowed to take the plants back to their house.
Rodriguez wants to take the Military Honor Park back to his house and put it back in his front yard until another more suitable location can be found. Miller said Rodriguez is welcome to remove any personal property he has in the park provided that he can present a receipt for it, something that Miller claims Rodriguez hasn’t done.
Miller hoped they can resolve the dispute.
“Our objective is to have a Military Honor Park here that all of the Veterans can enjoy, including Oscar. We have no animosity toward Oscar. The park is his vision.”
For now, the park is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. It is closed on holidays.
As for this Memorial Day weekend, Rodriguez will be among a group of veterans that will hold a Memorial Day event close to the park on Saturday.
“I am going to be on the street (next to the park). I am going to tell the veterans why we’re not having it at the park, and what’s going on,” he said.
“And then we’re going to go… honor our fallen, and have our service there.”
Following the park, the group will meet at the Veterans of Foreign Wars at 328 W. Coolidge Avenue in Coolidge.