Fallen soldiers tribute making its way to Mineola

Posted 7/22/21

There are a lot of gooseneck trailers in Wood County. A very special one will be making its way to Mineola on Aug. 5. Contained on the trailer will be the one-of-a-kind traveling memorial, the …

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Fallen soldiers tribute making its way to Mineola

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There are a lot of gooseneck trailers in Wood County. A very special one will be making its way to Mineola on Aug. 5. Contained on the trailer will be the one-of-a-kind traveling memorial, the GoldStars Tribute Wall.

Climbing out of the Ram 3500 pulling that trailer will be Samuel Nicoara – the designer, builder, brains, and brawn behind the Tribute Wall. He may be alone or he may be accompanied by a couple of volunteers. 

A few hours later, the traveling tribute wall will be fully standing on the pavement adjacent to the Veterans Memorial on West Commerce Street. In fact, the GoldStars Tribute Wall will dwarf the adjacent memorial and gazebo. 

A very tired Nicoara will make his final checks on the build and eventually give a thumbs-up to his volunteer team and a final nod to the construction. 

The GoldStars Tribute Wall honors those service members who have been killed in action (KIA) since the Gulf War. Included in that number are those fallen in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the world in the Global War on Terror.  

When prepared for presentation, over 7,000 gold-embossed stars will be affixed to sixteen 4’ x 8’ panels.  Each of these stars will be etched with the name and branch of service of a fallen service member. There will be more names on the memorial wall than residents of Mineola and Quitman combined. 

The GoldStars Tribute Wall will open for visitation Friday Aug. 6 through Monday Aug. 9. It is uniquely American.

Understanding the Tribute Wall begins with understanding the term Gold Star. 

The United States Army offers an excellent summation. “The term Gold Star is a modern reference that comes from the service flag. These flags/banners were first flown by families during World War One. The flag included a blue star for every family member serving in the armed forces of the United States, during any period of war or hostilities, in which the armed forces were engaged. If that loved one died, the blue star was replaced by a gold star. This allowed members of the community to know the price that the family had paid in the cause of freedom.”

Thus the GoldStars Tribute Wall is, as its creator described, “a remembrance of the sacrifice of the fallen and their families, and hopefully some consolation to the grieving families to which each of these young men and women belong.” Nicoara continued, “We must ensure that their memory is respected, and we must educate the following generations on the cost of freedom.”

Understanding that intent, it is easy to assume that this traveling memorial was a government  initiative.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is safe to say that without Samuel Nicoara there would be no GoldStars Tribute Wall, not at least in the present form and certainly not in 2021.

An immigrant from Romania, Nicoara enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served honorably as a debriefer/interrogator from 1987-99. His service in the Corps and his adopted country had life-changing impacts on him. 

Most profound was the amount of opportunity available to him in the United States. Also noticeable to him was the apparent lack of acknowledgment of those who defend the freedoms contained in the constitution. 

A recurring dream became an idea, which became a project, and soon an obsession. Nicoara designed and constructed the traveling memorial. In the process he very nearly sent himself into bankruptcy and put his family in jeopardy.

So convinced was Nicoara of the need to publicly recognize those KIA that he – against the advice of many – kept all corporate sponsorships at arm’s length and operated as a private enterprise. He described that he wanted nothing to dilute or distract from the message. 

Eventually, the traveling tribute was in commission. It was only then that he reluctantly transitioned the enterprise to a non-profit organization.

He explained, “I just did not want to be beholden to anyone, so I took no sponsorship early in the endeavor.”

He also wanted to avoid any perception of personal benefit from the project. “This memorial is not about me and I fought hard to ensure that that was understood from the beginning,” he added.

The nation has a system by which memorials are constructed. However, there is a minimum 10-year waiting period between the end of hostilities and consideration for a memorial. Then, a long bureaucratic process usually ensues. 

Nicoara considered this delay excessive and sought to bring recognition to the fallen and their families when it most mattered.  

The initial construction took three years. The Tribute Wall has now been in operation 10 years. 

The monument itself is quite complex. A compensating steel foundation receives the 16 Styrofoam panels which are covered with a concrete mesh. The panels fit into a trough in the base and are attached to columns separating each panel. Metal straps secure the pieces together and the whole construction is then staked or otherwise secured to the landing area.

Flags adorn each panel, as do two spotlights. One illuminates the flag and the other the panel. The 2.75” polished gold stars are held into place magnetically. Altogether, the Tribute Wall measures 91 feet when fully constructed. 

Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Tribute Wall was identifying those service members killed in action. With the government responding only to individual confirmations that a soldier was killed in action, it remained Nicoara’s greatest challenge to identify the fallen.

It was a repetitive process based on 16 publicly-available casualty lists, most from news organizations, which began the process. Small teams were formed to proof each list for accuracy. The teams then merged the lists and began the process again. 

The result is an accurate, though ongoing, presentation on the wall. Nicoara hopes to soon add the victims of the Fort Hood terrorist attack to the wall. 

With the unfaltering support of his wife, Jolita, his brother, his employer (GILLIG Bus Company) and volunteers across the nation, Nicoara is living his dream.

When asked what the significance of the GoldStars Tribute Wall was, Nicoara responded with a story. At a recent stop, a Gold Star mother and the siblings of one of the fallen maintained a vigil at the Tribute Wall for the duration of the visit. Normally, the wall is displayed for four days. 

Should anyone be in the vicinity of Commerce Street on Aug. 5, lending a hand in the set-up would be a truly meaningful gesture.