Turn your head, look at the M109 and cough

As most know, moving to a new community is full of challenges.  When I relocated to Missouri a couple of years ago, my goal was to get out of the Wisconsin’s constant barrage of snow. I knew, though, that any potential in improved living conditions would require leaving some things behind. High on that list of things I would have to give up was my immediate access to many significant collections of historic military vehicles. I figured, over time, I would meet a few people in Missouri who “bled OD,” but I never dreamed it would be as easy as going to the doctor!

After looking at a map, I decided I had to go south of St. Louis to escape the weary snowbelt. That is how I came to live in Jackson, Missouri (near Cape Girardeau on the top of what locals call the “Bootheel” of Missouri).

I had to do all the normal things involved with a move: Obtain Internet and cable service, hook up the electric, find a grocery store, the church and a doctor. I haven’t used the “Yellow Pages” in years, opting to simply Google what I seek. After a few clicks of the mouse, I had scratched most off my list. The only thing I still needed to locate was a doctor.

Driving around the community on a Sunday afternoon, I was about to leave town when some OD iron caught my eye. After braking in mid-highway, sure enough, there was an M109 self-propelled howitzer next to a business building! Taking the next opportunity to turn around, I drove down the little driveway that led right up to the Vietnam-vintage vehicle. Always with a camera ready, I went right to work documenting the vehicle. After a 20 or 30 shots, I noticed further down the driveway and behind the building, there were more vehicles, some artillery pieces and even a warhead or two!

I drove back and spent the next hour or two photographing an M42 “Duster” anti-aircraft self-propelled carrier, an M551 light tank and an M114 reconnaissance vehicle. What was this place? All the vehicles sat on independent slabs of concrete, the artillery and missile components on a separate slab and it was evident restorations were on-going on this approximately 10-acre military vehicle complex.

I couldn’t determine the business from where I was standing. I needed to figure out what this place was called so that I could properly identify the photos when I downloaded them to my hard drive. Packing my gear back into the Jetta, I drove around to the front of the building. There, big as day, was a sign: “Jackson Medical Center.” Well, I said I never use the Yellow Pages anymore, but when I returned home, that is exactly what I opened up to see if I could learn more.

It appeared that Jackson Medical was a full-service family practice. Dr. Charles S. Pewitt’s name was listed. I am not one of those people who researches every doctor in a community to determine who would be “best” for me. No, I am more of a “Close your eyes and point to the page” kind of guy. I have been fortunate trusting my health to dumb luck. And it appeared as though I lucked out again! Historic military vehicles and weaponry surrounded my new doctor’s office.

SPEC OPS PLAZA

For my first appointment, I arrived smiling with copies of Military Vehicles Magazine in my hand. Dr. Pewitt (“Doc”) introduced himself and proceeded with a routine examine. Finally, pulling off the rubber gloves after the most uncomfortable part of the examine, he asked, “So what’s that you brought in with you?”  Buckling my belt, I started to stammer that I was the “editor of Military…” “I know who you are, John,” Doc interrupted, “I get your magazine.” Well, if there was any discomfort left it all disappeared then! 

For the next 15 minutes, we both talked as fast as we could (he had more patients and I was sure if I was paying for this time!) about MVs, guns and the display behind the building, something he called, “SPEC OPS Plaza.”

Dr. Pewitt explained to me how weapons had been a life-long passion of his, starting with single-shot .22s when he was a kid and escalating to the point that he established a museum, maintains his tactical training and certification and even gives firearms training to police and conservation officers. I could tell this was going to be a fine doctor-patient relationship!

Over the past couple of years, I have learned more about the Doc and his memorial, SPEC OPS. His early interest was like most of us: Hunting, collecting firearms, going to shows and a passion for anything military. Doc didn’t invest too much into his hobby, though, opting to pursue a medical career.

While in medical school, Doc started attending the annual Soldier of Fortune Convention in Las Vegas. With degree in hand, he began to assemble an impressive collection of small arms with the notion of assembling a display of firearms at his practice. At one of the conventions, he ran into a fellow who said he had three 19th-century cannons from a British Man o’ War and from an early U.S. garrison.  Doc had to have those.

Within a couple of years, the collection had grown beyond the scope of a “wall of guns” to include several pieces of artillery and an Honest John missile. His practice was doing well, but he realized he was, increasingly, treating more elderly veterans. He listened to their stories as he administered to their needs until, one day, a small-framed WWII vet came in for his first appointment.

As Doc examined the elderly man, he couldn’t help notice the veteran’s severe hand tremors “How long have you had the tremors?” he asked. The old man didn’t have to think, “Since I was 18 years old.” Doc was flummoxed. Parkinson’s is generally an elderly ailment, not afflicting healthy 18-year-olds. He couldn’t think what could possibly have caused these tremors at such a young age. “What happened?” he asked.  The old vet looked Doc square in the eye and said, “It was the first time I crawled into a tank with General Patton!”

That night, Doc thought about the old veteran, his other patients who had served and how indebted he felt to all those who served. Here he was, young, had a happy family, was established in his practice but wanted to give something back.

In the past, the Doc had delivered talks to veteran groups, school children and scouts on firearms. He liked sharing and teaching with relics. This was the point where he had the idea: He could build an outdoor memorial that would be accessible and free to anyone who wanted to see it. It was also at this point that his collection took a different direction.

A DOCTOR WITH TANKS

Doc Pewitt is nothing less than tenacious. This is a characteristic that one wants in a doctor, but it serves so many other paths equally well. The Doc decided he was going to build a memorial on his 10 acres behind his practice, and that the military was going to supply the vehicles.

Now I am sure all of you are thinking—just like I did—“Suuure, he’s going to get vehicles from the military…they just GIVE those things away!” But, like I said, the Doc is tenacious.

He contacted U.S. Army Tank-Automotive Command (TACOM) and explained, “I am a doctor, and I have 10 acres of land. Here is what I want to do…” He went on to share his vision for a public memorial. The response is what you expect, “No need to start anything. Ain’t gonna happen” declared the Government on the other end of the line.  Doc was a bit set back, but regrouped and redeployed, “You know what? I am a patient guy. I can jump through any hoops put in front of me. Just tell me what the hoops are.” Three years later, after establishing the framework for “SPEC OPS Plaza” that included a board of directors, 501(c)3 status, attorneys and assignment of land, he talked again with TACOM. “You know,” the bureaucrat admitted, “A private individual has never got the certification to have a private memorial. You are the first one to do it.”

With the Army’s blessing, Doc was able to now request vehicles through TACOMs memorial program.  The first vehicle to be delivered was the M114. Elated at the prospect of beginning to build the park, Doc couldn’t hide just a bit of disappointment in the tracked recon vehicle—it just didn’t look all that exciting. But, he brought it up to TACOM specs for display and completed the slab of cement for the artillery pieces and missiles. It wasn’t long before he called TACOM and asked, “What else ya got?”

“Do you want trucks? Jeeps?” the TACOM officer asked. This time, Doc determined he was going to guide this deal: “No. I want tanks or artillery.”

TACOM made arrangements to deliver three vehicles to SPEC OPS Plaza: An M109 self-propelled howitzer, an M42 “Duster” self-propelled anti-aircraft gun and an M551 “Sheridan” light tank. As part of the requirements for certification, SPEC OPS Plaza agrees to pour individual slabs for the vehicles, restore the vehicles to TACOM Specs and make them available for public viewing. Doc jumps through all these “hoops” by employing a small private army of volunteers that involves friends, family and even employees.

BRANCHING OUT

With a good start consisting of several vehicles, artillery pieces and missiles on display, Doc decided he wants SPEC OPS Plaza to celebrate all of the branches of the U.S. military. So, back to the phone he went, this time calling the U.S. Navy. After another three years of promises and jumped-through hoops, he had nothing to show for his efforts. That all changed, when the Navy sent him four 1,500-lb. Naval light anchors. These are currently being sandblasted and will form a perimeter around a quad-mount naval deck gun from the USS Arkansas. In addition, work is being completed on a Regulus Cruise Missile and a Tomahawk armored box launcher. These will take their respective places in SPEC OPS Plaza in late 2011. Doc thinks he would like to locate a pile of Marston mat and Caterpillar to construct a tribute to the Seabees, as well.

Doc has never given up on his idea of displays inside his office building, either. The lower level is reserved for permanent displays celebrating the various branches of service. Regardless of future additions, Doc explains SPEC OPS Plaza is dedicated to three basic principals:

1.    Honoring the sacrifices of our veterans,
2.    Demonstrating to the young why we need the military, and
3.    Celebrating the 2nd Amendment.
   
“But all of these plans,” he explained with a wink, “depends on who I can call.”

It’s good to have a doctor who is tenacious, but I never thought my medical visits would involve sandblasting, priming and painting MVs!

Keep ’em rolling,
—John A-G

SPEC OPS Plaza is a public memorial dedicated to our veterans and is located at 2387 W Jackson Blvd, Jackson, Mo. The purpose of SPEC OPS Plaza is to establish both an indoor and outdoor institution to perpetuate respect, honor and recognition of our nation’s veterans from every war and conflict. For further information please contact 573-243-4343.

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