PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — A new memorial in Port Charlotte is going up in honor of a young man, along with 240 others who died 40 years ago in the 1983 bombing of a Marine compound in Lebanon, Beirut. With ceremonial shovels now in the dirt, the project is on the way.
Thousands of people drive past William R. Gaines Junior Veterans Memorial Park, on Edgewater Drive each day. Yet the story of Cpl. William "Bill" Gaines is one that needs to be told.
"That's really why our family wanted to come back here," said Michael Gaines, who was 14 when Cpl. Gaines died in Lebanon. "We don't live in the area (anymore) but the community really rallied around us when Bill died and I'm seeing them rally again."
Gaines had turned 21 years old only a week before October 23, 1983. The fateful Sunday morning, multiple suicide bombers attacked the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. 241 American military personnel, most of them Marines, died in the attack. Only a few dozen survived.
Retired Marine Chip Shields was one of the veterans who survived the 1983 bombing. He talked to the crowd, about 1,000 strong at the park on Wednesday, about getting pulled from the third floor of the destroyed building.
"In Charlotte County, this is a big step in helping us to remember that it's not just for the Beirut veterans but for all military for all the campaigns that are not getting talked about." Shields spent his years as a veteran helping others in emergencies, serving with Hillsborough County fire until his retirement.
Charlotte County Commissioner Stephen Deutsch has been a major backer of the project, saying Michael Gaines reached out to him "seven years ago" with the idea for this tower. Deutsch commended the state and the county for their support of the Beirut Peacekeepers Memorial Tower with the final idea being a three-story educational center to tell the history of American involvement during Lebanon's civil war from 1982 to 1984.
"We wanted something that would be similar to the Washington Monument or similar to Big Ben," said Gaines. "Something that people will want to come to this community to see and know they're going to learn the story of Beirut."
He pointed to a gathering in 1993, ten years after his older brother died, to really demonstrate the bond of veterans from a man who served with William Gaines in Beirut. "He was wearing an American flag on his jacket and it said 'In Memory of Bill Gaines'. There's a person there that remembered my brother just as much as I remembered him. That's what inspired me to want to share the story about veterans, about people who served their country and lose somebody close to them."
Deutsch says the county along with the state has already paid for some of the layers at Gaines Park from the playground, and a Gold Star Memorial, to separate displays to honor first responders and veterans.
Deutsch says they still need $1.5 million to finish the three-story tower that will educate future generations about Bill Gaines and a life only 21 years long but a legacy that should never be forgotten.
Shields is a board member of the William R. Gaines Jr. Veterans Memorial Foundation. He has been a part of the public and private partnership between Charlotte County and the State of Florida to help build this tower.
The park is dedicated to Veterans and First Responders, highlighting the connection they have in protecting our freedoms. Information about the park can be found at wrgainesjr.org.