By Beth Donze, Clarion Herald
When Brandon Bonvillain realized his favorite childhood haunt lacked a dedicated space in which to honor deceased and living veterans of the armed forces, he decided Lafreniere Park would make the perfect site for his Eagle Scout project.
Last fall, the Brother Martin senior received the blessing of local officials and Lafreniere’s staff to create a memorial garden for military heroes inside the Metairie park. The memorial, to be located near the park’s main pavilion, overlooking the lagoon, will include a pathway of memorial bricks converging at a centrally located Battlefield Cross – the iconic statue grouping that depicts an empty a pair of combat boots beneath an upended rifle that holds a soldier’s helmet and dog tags.
“There are flag poles that VFWs have put up (at Lafreniere Park), but there’s nothing that outright you could say, ‘Oh, I see it. That’s definitely for veterans,” said Bonvillain, 17, of the memorial slated for completion in March.
Bonvillain, a member of Brother Martin’s Navy Jr. ROTC and student ambassadors group, comes from a long line of servicemen, with great-grandfathers and grandfathers who fought in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. But the main inspiration for the memorial garden came from a more contemporary relative: his cousin, Marine Sargent Joseph Bovia, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.
“He was one of those guys that when you met him you’re like, ‘Wow. That’s a great guy. That’s someone I would want to associate myself with,’” Bonvillain said. “His death was really hard for me, especially since he was so far away when he passed away. It really gave me a perspective on how much these service men and women give to us to be able to sit here and talk – they give their lives for us.”
Bricks sold quickly
Last November, Bonvillain began selling red memorial bricks to the public in two sizes – 4-by-8 inches and 8-by-8 inches – on which purchasers could list the name and dates of service of their honoree. The bricks will be laser-engraved in black and coated with a special formula to protect them from the elements, with purchasers also having the option to include the crest of their loved one’s branch of the military, be it the Marine Corps, Navy, Army, Air Force or Coast Guard.
By early 2019, Bonvillain had met his goal of selling 130 bricks. An anonymous donor covered the cost of the eight-foot-tall Battlefield Cross.
“(The Battlefield Cross) is supposed to memorialize a fallen comrade in conflict, but it can also represent veterans who are still living, so they can reflect on the members that they may have fought with,” Bonvillain explained. “It’s for the living and the dead.”
But before he could sell a single brick Bonvillain had to take on the very adult task of sharing his idea with Jefferson Parish and Kenner officials. Bonvillain’s initial contact, Jefferson Parish Councilman Dominick Impastato, introduced him to Lafreniere’s grounds manager Barry McGuinness, who helped him locate the best site for the proposed memorial. The location they chose turned out to be a special place: Bonvillain frequently went fishing there with his late grandfather, a veteran of the Marine Corps.
“I wanted it to be a peaceful place, a place of quiet reflection,” said Bonvillain of the lagoon-side spot for the memorial. “I didn’t want it to be a busy place where you have people playing soccer.”
To publicize the endeavor, Bonvillain took orders of memorial bricks on site at Lafreniere and also attended American Legion and VFW meetings on weeknights and weekends. The largest crowd he addressed was a group of about 200 veterans attending the Nov. 11 Veterans Day program at Lakeside Mall.
“So many of them came up to me, and they were telling me stories they didn’t even tell their children. It was really powerful,” Bonvillain said, sharing the story of a Navy veteran who recalled one memorable search-and-rescue mission for a pilot who crashed in the middle of the ocean.
“They had to amputate (the pilot’s) legs because of how hurt he was,” Bonvillain said. “(The Navy veteran) remembered the guy coming up to him and saying, ‘Look, I might have lost my legs, but I still have my life and I’m grateful for that.’ Those stories really touch you, because our soldiers are willing to make these kinds of sacrifices every single day.”
Boy Scouts to assist at site
Bonvillain’s 20-member Troop 172, based at Our Lady of Divine Providence Church in Metairie, will assist the Eagle Scout’s project by digging the trench for the pathway of memorial bricks and hauling supplies to the site. The actual installation will be performed by La Pavers, a local landscape company.
“We wanted to do it professionally because we don’t want to come back two years later and have to redo it,” Bonvillain said.
The son of Christi and Keenan Bonvillain, the Eagle Scout is a graduate of St. Edward the Confessor Elementary, a member of Brother Martin’s 2018 state champion bowling team and part of his high school’s Cyber Patriot Club – a student group interested in cyber security.
Although he will officially complete his “Boy Scout” years when he turns 18 in May, Bonvillain, who hopes to pursue a career in law, said the program will benefit him throughout his life.
“Boy Scouts of America is an important program that teaches young boys how to be self-sustaining and how to be good men when they grow up,” Bonvillain said.
“I’ve learned so many skills throughout Boy Scouts – it’s not necessarily just how to tie the knots; it’s about how you can represent yourself and your family,” he added. “It’s taught me a lot about how to talk to people and how to interact with people and how to be a leader.”