McKinney city staff, armed services board foster veteran presence
Photo courtesy of the city of McKinney - Boy Scouts fold the American flag during a Veterans Day ceremony Saturday at the Veterans Memorial Park in McKinney. The park is an ongoing project, with names still to be added and enhancements planned for the east end opposite the Wall of Honor.
Hundreds gathered this weekend at Veterans Memorial Park in McKinney to recognize Collin County's role in the forever fight to protect their freedom.
What few likely realized was the service linked to the park and their city - on foreign and familiar soil. It's hard amid a group of about 800 city employees, so hard that some veterans aren't even aware.
But a military presence is strong in and around the McKinney workforce.
"There are just a lot of veterans who really don't talk much about it," said Steve Brainerd, city parks development superintendent. "It took me a long time - almost 40 years - to talk about my experiences."
Brainerd, the design facilitator behind the Memorial Park that opened last year, spoke at Saturday's ceremony. It's easy for him to cherish his fellow countrymen's service, particularly the 350 soldiers etched into the Wall of Honor.
Retired from the U.S. Navy since 1991, Brainerd flew jet fighters on 219 combat missions in Vietnam, commanding an F-14 fighter squadron for many. Aside from memories - perhaps some still locked away - his most lasting takeaways show through his work today.
"Especially for the combat veterans, I think it really gives them an important perspective throughout life of what's important," he said. "Those life-changing experiences stay with you for as long as you live."
Richard Milam, city environmental health specialist and a 22-year Army Reserve, echoes Brainerd's respect for the military mold - which, to both, is admittedly hindsight. Milam, who spent 2009 and part of 2010 in Afghanistan, initially enlisted simply because he couldn't afford college.
"I quickly realized it was for me," said Milam, who's since served in various roles from supply sergeant to medical supply specialist to his present duty as environmental science officer, virtually the same work he does as a civilian. "I liked the discipline and the structure that goes along with the day-to-day life. Everything's pretty much black and white, you know what you're supposed to do, and that really suited my personality well."
Milam's military-civilian blend formed soon after his internship with the city of Denton's health department. Through the GI Bill, he had pursued studies in the environmental field, which became evident to his military peers.
"They kind of guided me in that direction," he said. "The civilian side heavily influenced my eventual career path in the military."
Brainerd, however, went a different direction once out of the Navy, from fighter jets to landscape architecture. He earned his Master's degree, and after private work, began designing city parks, including in McKinney since 2000.
"I really didn't intend to stay in the military as a career, but I enjoyed it," Brainerd said. "Once they took the airplane away from me, it wasn't as fun."
He's stayed connected through the Memorial Park, a seven-year, $1.3 million project that he oversaw. Brainerd was responsible for the design, and helped the McKinney Armed Services Memorial Board (MASMB) make area veterans' dream a reality. "It's a very special project to me," he said.
City employees aren't allowed to serve on the seven-member board, so Brainerd was one of the few who worked with it on the memorial. Board chair Ralph French, a peacetime Army veteran from 1975-1981, is long-removed from his military service. He spent time working with missile guidance systems at Ft. Hood, in Alabama and in Germany.
With his son, Jonathan, a captain in the Army, he said the MASMB was "just a natural fit." Members serve two consecutive two-year terms and meet most months. Their recent and impending duties, French said, are enhancing the Memorial Park - adding more flags, sprucing up the east end and recognizing Collin County veterans who've received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"We know there are more names out there we just haven't found yet," French said of the board's ongoing mission. "I don't know if people understand the history Collin County has in defending our country. Every veteran out there has a bond that we can and should honor."
Included in that mission are frequent library trips, digging for past news stories and documents that unveil other local veterans. French said the park where they'll be honored wouldn't have been possible without Brainerd.
"Steve's been involved with it from the start," he said. "He's the real deal. He was our liaison with the city and kept us going down the road."
While the board develops ideas to honor past veterans, Milam, Brainerd and dozens of other city employees continue a present, different service. Though his careers intertwine, Milam's well aware of their distinction.
"I love my job and love coming to work every day, but it's a little less exciting doing it here versus overseas in a combat zone," said Milam, adding that mosquitoes were his biggest issue in recent months. "Overseas, I might be on a base with 10,000 other soldiers doing inspections, then the next day on the side of a mountain with 20 soldiers doing something else. With dangerous things going on all around you, your adrenaline level is much different."
Brainerd said his previous career gave him "a firm foundation on how to view life in a different perspective" - to both appreciate and trivialize more. "It certainly helps you work with people (and) gives you a commitment and endurance to stick to it," he said.
French's time on the board ends next year, but he said involvement with it and the Memorial Park will never end, for him or all past and present members.
Veterans' names already on the Wall were read aloud Sunday at a sundown ceremony.
In the midst of a forever fight for freedom, the additions are sure to continue.
And those there to remember them every Veterans Day - those serving the city in which it lies - are sure to remain silent servers.
It's the American way.
"I think veterans have something to offer as long as they live," Brainerd said. "We certainly should celebrate Veterans Day in honor of the U.S. Armed Forces personnel who keep this country safe, but I think their challenge is to continue to serve. And I think most of them do that."