On Turak’s hillOct 28, 2021 02:28PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
In the circuitous navigation that eventually leads to Gray Horse Farm just a few miles from Cecil County, its most crucial directions begin at the Port Deposit exit off of Route 1 southbound that leads to a dirt road that winds past forest-thick growth and creates the temporary illusion that the visitor is being led to the beginning of Nowhere.
George Turak, who purchased the 127-acre property with his wife Michelle in 1999, greets the visitor with a grand welcome that is both kind and anticipatory, because he can’t wait to show the visitor where the magic of this property and the foundation that he began happens.
Turak tucks a basket of beverages into the back of a small terrain vehicle – he’s got a few members coming over soon from Mount America Foundation, the organization he and Michelle began two years ago that honors military and emergency service providers and their families – and the general plan for the afternoon is to crack open a few beers with his buddies, light up a few cigars and watch the day go by from a bridge that crosses the Octoraro River at the far edge of the property.
It is a short but steep and bumpy ride to the top of the 390-foot hill, and when Turak shuts off the vehicle, he says nothing. He doesn’t have to, because suddenly and without warning and with the only sound that of the quiet wind, the grand sweep of emotions match that of the all-encompassing vista that takes in the northern reaches of Cecil County, and parts of Chester County and Lancaster County.
Immediately, the visitor knows that he has arrived at sacred ground.
At the edge of the one-acre mowed field, seven bronze statues – called Soldier’s Crosses, each sculpted by friend and sculptor Andrew Chernak -- stand four feet in height and exactly 21 feet apart. Each one displays a raised bayonet protruding from a soldier’s boot and a helmet depicting the headgear of U.S. wars and conflicts.
Beside the flagpole and beneath the American flag are plaques honoring Gold Star mothers – also sculpted by Chernak.
Day, the Turaks welcome veterans and their families to the hill,
where a ceremony is held. Three people stand at each cross. Each
person in turn says a name and rings the helmet, which sounds like a
bell. Twenty-one names are spoken in remembrance of their sacrifice
for their country.
Beside the Soldiers Cross statue honoring the American men and women of World War II, Turak removes a small knife from his pocket, and asks the visitor to say the name of his grandfather, who fought in World War II. After the name “George” is whispered, Turak taps the helmet with his knife, and the sound reverberates in soft echo, like a bell struck by a child.
He then walks to the statue honoring those who fought in the Korean Conflict. “What was your father’s name?” Turak asks the visitor.
Turak taps the helmet at the top of the statue, and the same sound happens, and the visitor begins to understand why hundreds of veterans and their families continue to make their pilgrimage to this one-acre patch of earth at the top of a hill at the tip of Cecil County.
They come here to reflect, talk, listen, honor and heal, and it as if they are welcomed with the opened arms of those they have come to remember.
‘I was just trying to survive coming back from the war’
The seeds that became Turak’s mission to bring a memorial celebrating the fallen men and women of our nation’s armed forces to families throughout Cecil County and beyond were not planted at Gray Horse Farm. In fact, they first fell from Turak’s hand when he was an infantryman in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War in 1969-70.
In the jungle one early morning at about 5 a.m., Turak was wounded during a battle with the Vietcong. After he recovered from his injuries and returned to the United States, Turak, a Wilmington native, became the owner of the Turak Gallery of American Art in Philadelphia in 1973, which specializes in the purchase and sale of 19th and 20th century American art.
“I wasn’t thinking about forming a foundation back then,” Turak said. “I was just trying to survive coming back from the war and dealing with the issues that we all had to deal with. From time to time, I would go to this pub and see these people dancing and I would say to myself, ‘These people have no idea about what’s happening on the other side of the world. There are young guys over in Vietnam who are dying.’”
Over the next several years, Turak struggled to apply proper words to his war experiences, and saw that he was not alone. He attended meetings of veterans at the Perry Point Veterans Administration Medical Center. At one gathering, he heard the story of a World War II veteran who wept openly about his experience on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day – the guilt survivor complex felt by those veterans who got to come home.
Finally, “It was Michelle who told me that I ought to be proud of what I did in Vietnam, and she got me back involved with recognizing my military service, and subsequently, helping others just like me,” she said.
While he was positioning the gallery to become one of the finest galleries of its kind in the Philadelphia area, Turak also began to champion the cause to honor the men and women of the U.S. military, and in 2008, began serving on the advisory council for the Campaign for the National Museum of the United States Army. He also became a volunteer for the Armed Services Council at the Union League in Philadelphia.
In 2009 – ten yeas after first purchasing the farm - the Turaks hosted Robert Daniels, who was then the head of the Union League Armed Services Council and had assisted several Gold Star families. After admiring the expansive views from the farm, Daniels turned to Turak.
“George, you’ve been back from the war for 40 years. Don’t you think it’s time to put up a flag?” Daniels asked.
Soon, at the property’s highest elevation point, a 40-foot-tall flag pole proudly displayed the American flag, but the flag was merely the beginning.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., Turak met with a Colonel who had been involved with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing at Walter Reed Hospital, an organization dedicated to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of disabled active military personnel through fly fishing.
“I told him, ‘We are surrounded by the Octoraro River, and I have always wanted to help veterans and their families,’” Turak said. “We began to stock the river, and that got the whole idea of Mount America Foundation started.”
A welcome sanctuary for veterans and their families
Within weeks, veterans began arriving at the farm, equipped with fly fishing poles and their families. Eventually, the Turak farm became the home for a local U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps training area; and the site of Veterans Day and Memorial Day celebrations with visiting dignitaries and Gold Star families. Through the powerful network of military families and organizations, the word had gotten out: Gray Horse Farm was being transformed into a welcome sanctuary and ceremonial home for veterans and their families.
“Chris Clemens, who was a chopper pilot for the Philadelphia Police Department, would bring his wife and three kids to our Memorial Day Sunday,” Turak said. “On one visit here in 2014, his sons created a drawing of the hill with the flag on it as part of a school art project. On the back of the paper, the kids wrote, ‘Mount America.’”
For the Turaks, it was time to collate all of these separate events, collaborations and initiatives under one umbrella, and in 2019, Mount America Foundation was formed.
A nonprofit 501 (c) (3) charitable organization, the foundation serves veterans, active duty and National Guard/Reserve service members, first responders and their families – as well as honors the families of those who paid the ultimate price. Through its efforts and partnerships with other organizations, the Foundation provides programs that help reconcile the physical and emotional effects of combat to foster hope, understanding, and success.
Conversations at the bridge
There was a makeshift table, chairs and umbrella set up on the forlorn and crooked bridge over the Octoraro Creek at the Turak Farm, and it serves as a regular beer-and-cigar klatch for anyone associated with Mount America Foundation to have a few laughs, cuss a little, and share a story or two about their service if they are inclined to do so.
On a cloudy fall afternoon, Chernak – the sculptor -- sat in a folding chair and mostly listened to Turak and Bill Vosseler of Garnet Valley – another Vietnam veteran – talk about the days when they first returned to the U.S. after their service.
Finally, Chernak recalled his own story that happened when he was 20 years old, after serving in the thicket of a triple canopy jungle near Saigon in 1970.
“I took a flight to the McGuire Air Force base, spent the night at Fort Dix, and the next day, took a bus to Philadelphia the next day, in full military uniform, Chernak said. “I hailed a cab, and as I was about to get in, and a police car cut in front of the cab. A policeman and got out of his vehicle and proceeded to arrest me, because I had a souvenir rifle from my time in Vietnam. He told me that he had gotten word that someone was walking around with a rifle.
“They took me to the police station, and the entire police force treated me great – coffee, donuts. They asked to see my photo album, and they apologized to me and told me that there would be no record of my arrest. They then offered me a free ride home.”
In the years that followed, Chernak followed the common practice of most veterans who return to civilian life. He attempted to make his memories disappear.
“I tried to pick up life where I left off when I enlisted in the Army, but it wasn’t working out, so I became more and more reclusive,” he said. “I then discovered sculpting and that was great for me. It put me into a world that I found pleasant, in a world I could live in.
“I really wanted nothing to do with talking or remembering.”
Several years ago, Chernak – who had already designed and created his Soldiers Cross -- was giving a lecture about sculpture at the Philadelphia Union League, when he met Turak.
“I saw that George had a miniature Purple Heart on his lapel, and I thought, ‘Here’s a guy I could relate to,’” he said.
Soon after, Turak commissioned Chernak to sculpt a Soldiers Cross for the hill, then another and another and they have just kept coming. Over the last few years, Mount America Foundation has placed several of Chernak’s memorials at military bases, veterans cemeteries and parks, but to Chernak, every time he ventures up to the hill at Gray Horse Farm where the most of his Soldiers Crosses and several memorials reside, he is renewed.
“Every time I go there it brings back memories, but the hill lets you handle those memories, whereas years ago, I wasn’t able to handle them well at all,” he said. “I know what Mount America is trying to do. I have seen many ceremonies, I have seen the healing reactions of people being there, and it gives validation to the work that I am able to do on behalf of the foundation.”
‘It was time to shut up and go away’
On the bridge, Vosseler took a reflective puff of his cigar.
He recalls the time he gave his girlfriend his Army brass medals, thinking she would wear them at college. She told Vosseler that she couldn’t wear them at school; it was something that just wasn’t acceptable.
“I can remember wanting to talk about Vietnam, but I very quickly got the impression that this isn’t anything anybody wanted to talk about,” said Vosseler, who serves as Mount America’s treasurer. “The common belief was that ‘We just want to forget it is there. We want to forget it was going on.’
“In retrospect, I was looking for the adrenaline rush that I felt when I was in the infantry, and I couldn’t find it. We wanted to speak to someone but we didn’t. It was just something that we buried. It was time to shut up and go away.”
As Turak and his wife continue to emerge themselves in the hard conversations about the war experience, Gray Horse Farm has become a forum for long-held truths to be told, both by veterans like Chernak and Vosseler, as well as for women.
Turak told the story of a young nurse, who when she first arrived at Gray Horse Farm was traumatized by the effects of the many soldiers she saw die in front of her on the operating table. While her trauma is still very real, Turak said that he and Michelle are delighted by the connection the nurse has made to the farms’ many cats.
“She came to us in a shell, and to see her now, petting and talking to the cats, smiling and opening up to people, means the world to us,” Turak said. “Having been a wounded solider and in a hospital for three months, I understand what she has seen, felt and experienced.”
Mount America Foundation is not just about honoring the past, but preparing young people for a bright future. Its collaboration with the U.S. Navy Sea Cadet Corps has allowed young people from tough, inner-city neighborhoods to enjoy the beauty of Gray Horse Farm, attend tours of museums and battlefields like Gettysburg, and gain an understanding of a larger world.
“Their experiences here have given them a new perspective that they would never have had if they never left their two-block lives of their neighborhoods,” Turak said. “If we can move their lives a half and inch forward, then we will have achieved what Mount America Foundation is all about.”
‘The safe and quiet place’
One of the goals of the foundation is to collect soil from battlefields around the world, and sprinkle it among Chernak’s Soldiers Crosses and other memorials at the top of the hill at Gray Horse Farm. Currently, there is sand at the site that came from the beaches of Iwo Jima and Normandy.
“The sand is almost like an anointing,” Vosseler said, “to recognize the parts of the world where people gave their lives for this country, and to give others – family and those who served in those conflicts – the ability to relate even more.
“The hill is hallowed ground for people who haven’t been able to express their emotions for those who will never come back to their families, and those who have served who are no longer here,” he added. “For all of those who come here – whether they are a current service member, an ex-service member, a wounded veteran or inner-city children, this farm, this foundation -- is a safe and quiet place.”
To learn more about Mount America Foundation and to make a contribution to the design, construction and placement of Soldiers Cross memorials, visit www.mountamerica.org.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].