Nicholas Walters never served in the military, but he was indelibly shaped by the stories he heard from his father, Sanford Walters, a Towson resident who served in Vietnam in 1969 and 1970 as a U.S. Army lieutenant.
"He's someone who has always been committed to the veterans," Nicholas said of his dad. "It doesn't matter how old I get, he's someone I'm always going to look up to and respect his opinion and experience."
It troubled Nicholas to hear about the treatment his father got when he returned home and re-entered civilian life during those tumultuous times in the early 1970s.
"As a returning Vietnam veteran, it was even a hindrance to get a job back then, because the war was so controversial," said Nicholas, 34, a graduate of the former Towson Catholic High School who now works in the auto finance industry.
Nicholas, however, also learned from his father about the healing power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C.
"He knows how much the memorial means to me personally, to have a place where you can focus," said Sanford Walters, 66, an executive vice president at Kelly & Associates, in Hunt Valley.
"I went to (the U.S. Army's Officer Candidate School) in 1969, and we had our first reunion in Washington, D.C., five years ago," he said.
"The first time we went to 'The Wall,' it was hard, but it was also so moving," the elder Walters said. "You go in and look at the names of people you went through (service) with who didn't come back.
"I think soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan these days don't have a place like that."
If Walters and his son have their way, veterans of the wars in the Middle East one day will have their own piece of hallowed ground in the nation's capital.
With his dad's encouragement, Nicholas Walters has launched a grassroots campaign to build a National Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Memorial, in Washington. He's the project's unpaid executive director, while his father serves on the nonprofit's board of directors.
"I believe history nowadays is made much faster than it used to be," Nicholas Walters said. "We don't need to wait until all our veterans are dead to have a memorial for them. What we envision is a place where veterans and families of veterans can go that has some acknowledgment of the sacrifices that they made.
"I think a lot of the idea for this came when we were coming up on the 10th anniversary of 9/11," he said. "We've been involved in these wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for a sizable percent of people's lives, and we've lost lots of lives over there.
"This is a void I can fill," he said. "This is something I can do, and it feels right to do it."
Nicholas Walters said research on the project showed him that many of the nation's cherished memorials — from the Iwo Jima Memorial to Mount Rushmore — started through private initiatives, often by just a handful of individuals.
"It's not like you have to wait for the government to come in and do something like this," he said. "This is altogether obtainable. Sure, we're trying to do something grand, but it's something that can be done."
Like father, like son
"I've been active in the nonprofit world since I was 10 years old, and I was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes," Nicholas Walters said. "When I was in the hospital the first time, I remember the doctors telling me that the only thing keeping us from a cure for childhood diabetes was time and money.
"Well, I couldn't do anything about the time part of the equation, but I went to work on the money end. I went door-to-door," he said.
"I stood outside the supermarket raising money," he said, "and by the time I graduated high school I was fortunate enough to raise over $1 million for juvenile diabetes."
A graduate of George Washington University, Nicholas has also been active in a nonprofit called the Heart of America Foundation, which helps low-income schools and children.
"After Hurricane Katrina, we went down there and gave kids toiletries and books," he said. "We also went into the schools and looked at the libraries. … With the help of corporate partners like Target and Capital One, we got books, renovated the libraries and transformed them into really cool hubs for the schools."
In addition to his military service, the elder Walters has a history of community service as well.
Sanford Walters is a longtime volunteer for the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that helps veterans struggling with homelessness, alcoholism, drug addiction, joblessness and similar challenges.
"A lot of the people who work and volunteer there are retired military, who want to give back," he said.
Currently, the National Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Memorial project has a website — http://www.naivm.org — and Nicholas Walters spends much of his spare time raising money and momentum for his dream.
He said his organization is on track to purchase a site in Washington, by the end of next year. He hopes to have a design and break ground on the memorial in about five years.
"Right now we're still in phase one, which is just to raise enough money, about $200,000 to make a payment on one of the sites that we have in mind," he said. "We have a good team of experienced, knowledgeable people on our board who understand Washington, D.C., real estate and politics — and who also understand the nonprofit world."
Personal, not political
Nicholas Walters wants to keep his memorial project from becoming politicized, but he realizes how challenging that can be.
"I remember in my freshman year at George Washington University, 16 years ago, I put up an American flag on the wall above my bed," he recalled. "Right away people said, 'Oh, you're a Republican?'
"That shocked me," he said. "I was 18 years old. I hardly had a political leg to stand on. I was just proud to be an American."
Nicholas and Sanford Walters are both aware the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts are, like Vietnam, mired in controversy and politics. They want to ensure the National Afghanistan and Iraq Veterans Memorial, like the Vietnam War Memorial, will be a place for healing and unity, whenever and wherever it is ultimately built.
"The thing about Vietnam is that it tore some families apart, even my family," Nicholas Walters said.
"Some of my dad's brothers were even against the war," he said. "There really were factions, and it's sad when soldiers are sometimes blamed for things that politicians do.
"It's still a hard road for veterans nowadays, even though they really deserve the best," he said. "After all, most of them went off to war young, with eyes wide open. All they were doing was trying to help us all out.
"They deserve a place that they will be able to come home to and have as a comforting resource, without it being political."