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It started in the public comment forum of the Okaloosa County Commission meeting on Tuesday afternoon. One by one, women veterans stood at the dais. They voiced their support for expanding the Women Veteran’s Monument on Okaloosa Island at the cost of $1.6 Million raised by the local tourism tax, which would eventually pass unanimously with the board of county commissioners – though not without some reservations. 

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel noted that a senior master sergeant, two generals, a doctor, and a dentist supported the expansion from eight statues on 20.5 acres of land on Okaloosa Island to twelve.

Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel (R-Shalimar).

Opposition to the Monument - On Conservatism Grounds

A lone dissenter to the project’s expansion took her place at the dais to advocate against the project’s expansion. Former School Board Candidate Cara Marion spoke about using taxpayer money on the project. “When citizens of this county cannot safely drive on Eglin Parkway during a rainstorm because our dated infrastructure and poor road conditions, poor stormwater and poor pumphouse systems are repeatedly failing, the last thing that citizens want is their hard-earned taxpayer dollars being spent on a statue in a park,” she said. 

Eglin Parkway is a state road – and is, therefore, out of the scope of Okaloosa County’s purview. 

 

woman smiling in photo
Cara Marion is a former Air Force Officer and former candidate for School Board District 5.

Marion told the crowd she was a proud woman veteran and a retired United States Air Force officer. “I was the first woman to serve in a combat-rated position with the Air Force Special Operations Command. After the ban on women in combat was lifted, I was the first. And, yes, I do not want my tax money spent this way. There are plenty of private citizens, I’m one of them, non-profits and special interest groups that can advocate for such projects.”  

The project unveiled its first phase in 2021, sits on a parcel of land on Okaloosa Island on the shores of the Choctawhatchee Bay, a quarter of a mile or so east of the Brooks Bridge to Fort Walton Beach. 

The land rests on a relatively quiet spot, though sometimes you can hear the go-kart track next door through the multiple sound barriers erected to block out noise from businesses and Highway 98. 

Back in the commission chambers in Crestview, nearly two hours would pass between public comment and the final decision about expanding the Women Veteran’s Monument. The discussion exclusively amongst the commissioners would reveal some angst about the expansion, despite the fact the motion would pass unanimously and county staff would be given a mandate to move forward with the project, with or without beach renourishment in place to protect it. 

'Why Can't We Build Roads With This Money?'

Marion spoke to some members of the audience’s frustration about spending money on statues in the past – and that more spending on bronze likenesses could be in the county’s future. She said conservative principles, which all five Republicans on the board have espoused in their campaign literature on the election trail, were violated by purchasing the statues with tax dollars. 

Marion left after she spoke to Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel’s chagrin. Ketchel led the charge to build the original park and install the first eight statues on the parcel of land. 

Commissioner Ketchel told the audience she wanted to educate Marion about spending various tax monies. She said she was disappointed Marion did not stay to learn from her. “What she did not understand, and I was sorry I didn’t get a chance to tell her, is that this is tourist development dollars, and she kept saying ‘it was our tax dollars’. And she did not understand that tourism development dollars came from bed tax dollars and that there’s a sixth penny and it’s about marketing, and we couldn’t build roads with that, even if we wanted to. I wanted to have that conversation with her,” Ketchel said. 

Ketchel is correct; Florida State Statutes outline what money raised from hotel bed taxes can be used for. A six percent tax is levied on short-term hotel rentals (less than six months) and used to “promote tourism.”

During a discussion about the park, Commissioner Mel Ponder quickly pointed out that tourism tax dollars would be used on the project. Tourism tax dollars, raised from a tax on hotels, have limitations on their use, forcing commissioners to use them on projects that generate more tourism dollars. 

But Commissioner Nathan Boyles took a more nuanced view of Marion’s statement. “I don’t know what [Cara Marion] thought, and I won’t attempt to know what she thought or understand. I certainly suspect that she may have understood that those were, in fact, tax dollars. I think it’s important for us to remember the underlying source certainly controls uses at the end of the day. However, it never takes away the obligation for us to recognize at the end of the day that we’re still stewards of public money, whether it’s a bed tax, or a surtax or a gas tax, it’s all public money at the end of the day. And, I suspect that is what that citizen was driving at. I can say it’s a challenge to go into a room and share a perspective when you know the majority of the folks in the room will not agree with what you’ve got to say. That’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s also the beauty of the system we’ve created – that we have a system that allows for that. to see that interaction occur and to see everyone react respectfully,” he added later in the meeting.  

Long story short, Boyles says, that regardless of the origin of tax dollars, the commission is responsible for their wise use. 

Building Monuments on a Barrier Island: Risks Associated With Expanding the Women's Veterans Memorial Complex on Okaloosa Island

Most of the commission expressed concerns with some portion of the expansion project. Commissioner Paul Mixon spoke up after Ketchel finished her thoughts. “My sister was a veteran,” Mixon started. “Here’s my concern: the seashore has not been done,” he said, referring to beach renourishment to help prevent the park and statues from washing away in the next hurricane, “I’m not against the project; I’m good with moving forward. But, I don’t want to just keep building when we are not doing anything to protect it.”

Okaloosa County Budget Director Faye Douglas informed the commission the funding grant extension the county was waiting on to fund the restoration came through the same day as the commission meeting, September 19th. 

However, none of the commissioners favored tying the beginning of phase two of the park to the preservation project. “That’s a separate thing that I have no control over,” said Commissioner Ketchel, who opposes waiting for the safety of the beach renourishment to be built up before starting on phase two of the project. “But, I’m as frustrated it hasn’t been built, probably, as the rest of the board,” she added – cutting in over Commissioner Mixon. 

 

a man with a shaved head and beard in a coat and tie.
Commissioner Paul Mixon represents the northeastern portion of Okaloosa County.

“I wasn’t suggesting a change to your motion or to your second,” Mixon responded after some refereeing from Board Chairman Trey Goodwin, “Just, if we are moving in the direction of continuing to build out infrastructure we made plans to protect which we have not yet done, I do not want to see us lose more than we need to if that time were to come.”

Commissioner Ketchel apologized for her outburst, and the interruption of Commissioner Mixon explained her frustrations. “I’m frustrated about two things. I’m frustrated that nobody in this community knows that this project is out there because we failed to advertise it. I’m also frustrated that the living shoreline hasn’t gone into place. I’ve been on this board nine years, and they’ve been talking about it for nine years,” said Ketchel.

Ketchel also admitted that the monument park sits in a precarious position – especially regarding threats from hurricanes. “The last hurricane that came through, Sally, clawed out half of that beach over there,” she said about the land where the Women Veteran’s Monument Park sits. 

 

“I’m going to vote in support of this project,” Commissioner Boyles told the board. “I am going to echo some of the sentiment of perhaps some concern that I had on round one that is, from my perspective, if this were general fund dollars [money that is collected, mostly, from property taxes] – it would be a no-go for me. It is my preference that the statues be built with private-sector funding. That has not materialized in a meaningful way to offset the cost of these statues, Boyles added, “What I want to be careful of is that we don’t live in a society where government is supposed to sponsor patriotism through propaganda. That’s not the society that, I believe, our forefathers intended. We do it differently here. It’s certainly something that should be cultivated, but it should be cultivated as a grassroots function and not through government expenditure. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that tension and line exists and be careful to let a good idea drive a bad decision on the expenditure of public money.”

Nathan Boyles County Commissioner
Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles has served as a commissioner since 2012.

'You Were Killed By A Woman': Nominating The Next Batch of Honorees at the Women Veteran's Monument

“I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you this: There will be a phase three, there will be a phase four, probably,” Commissioner Ketchel told the rest of the board, “There will be an ask on this that will go forward for years to come, because people love this park and they want to see it grow. We have so many woman that we can recognize that have done remarkable things.”

Commissioners Ketchel and Ponder advocated for one of the statutes to be the current commander at Hurlburt Field, Colonel Allison Black. “Colonel Black, who was a commander out there, she’s the one who they announced, that, after they bombed all of the Taliban, they announced, ‘you have just been killed by a woman,'” Ketchel said, “She’s somebody we should recognize.”

• FUN FACT: Only one woman has won the Congressional Medal of Honor. She doesn’t have a statue in the Women Veteran’s Memorial Park in Okaloosa County. Here’s how she won the medal and more about her amazing life.

a woman in Air Force uniform.
Colonel Allison Black is an Air Force Pilot at Hurlburt Field.

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