Local veterans, including L&A Veterans Council Chairman Jerry Dewitt, attended the positioning of the LTV A-7D Corsair II fighter jet onto a concrete pedestal in November 2020 in Veterans Memorial Park in Lewiston. From left are Bert Dutil, Charlie Paul, Del Gendron (seated), Jerry Dewitt and Norm Cote. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

LEWISTON — It started with someone saying, “Let’s get an airplane down there!” and a couple years later, an A-7D Corsair II fighter jet was lowered into place at Veterans Memorial Park on Main Street.

At the center of the effort was Jerry Dewitt, chairman of the L&A Veterans Council, which has slowly turned the park overlooking the Great Falls into one of the most recognizable in the state.

The camouflaged jet with razor sharp teeth, on permanent loan from the U.S. Air Force Museum, is just the latest example of the council’s commitment to honoring and assisting area veterans.

This year, Dewitt and the council were awarded the Spirit of America award in Lewiston, given annually to a deserving volunteer organization. DeWitt said the award was a surprise, and was a big deal during a tough year for veterans groups, which he said have been struggling during the pandemic.

“They’re having a hard time paying the rent right now,” he said. “We were just taken aback (by the award), and I made sure that all the (veterans) organizations saw it. We appreciate them acknowledging the work we do down there.”

As Dewitt describes it, he is “one of the originals” on the council since its formation in 1998. The organization has an agreement with the city to maintain the memorial park, but it’s far from the council’s only focus.

The council sponsors the annual Memorial Day parade and ceremony, as well as Veterans Day observances; assists with the yearly homeless point-in-time count with Catholic Charities and the Lewiston-Auburn Alliance for the Homeless; and participates in the Liberty Festival.

According to the Spirit of America award memo, the council was an integral part of bringing the Veterans Affairs community-based outpatient clinic to Lewiston, assisting area veterans in getting medical care. It also partnered with the city, the Lewiston Housing Authority, and many volunteers, during the formation of the B Street Clinic.

The organization was given the award in October during a City Council meeting via Zoom.

Jerry Dewitt 2018 Sun Journal file photo

Dewitt, 74, served 28 years in the Army. When he was just 17, he was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam War. He has spent his retirement as a veterans outreach specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services and with the veterans council.

In 2014, Dewitt was awarded “Humanitarian of the Year” by the American Legion for his work in securing services for veterans and their families.

Last year, he was an integral part of securing the Corsair II jet, and flew to Montana to oversee its dismantling. Then, the 20,000-pound aircraft was trucked across the country to Maine, which he described as a “logistics nightmare.”

When it arrived in Massachusetts, the trip was temporarily halted due to a law that doesn’t allow “oversized loads” to travel the state turnpike after sundown on Fridays. He enlisted the help of local legislators to help secure special permission, and he drove his car down, complete with an oversized load sign and lights, to escort it to Maine.

Since 1998, installations at the memorial park have gone from flagpoles, monuments and memorial stones to vehicles like a World War II-era jeep and the Vietnam-era fighter jet. The Corsair II had to be reassembled on site, but was officially unveiled in November, just a month after the council received its award.

Charlie Paul, also a member of the council, is leading an effort to install a Vietnam War memorial in the park, hoping to have it installed by Veterans Day 2021.

Each year on Memorial Day the council has been able to add new memorial stones featuring names of veterans. They are now up to 32 stones.

When asked if the council might eventually run out of space or halt new additions to the park, Dewitt said it’s not likely.

“We’ll stop when people stop caring, I guess,” he said.

Know someone with a deep well of unlimited public spirit? Someone who gives of their time to make their community a better place? Then nominate them for Kudos. Send their name and the place where they do their good deeds to reporter Andrew Rice at [email protected] we’ll do the rest.

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