Cliff Mullen of Cuba, Missouri had a winning smile and wrote for the high school paper the Wildcat Wailer. He played baseball and enjoyed 4-H activities in the rural Missouri town. The 10th of 12 children born to Hank and Florence Mullen, he graduated from high school in 1965 and worked for Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.
Following the footsteps of his older brothers, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a Seabee with the U.S. Pacific Fleet and served two tours in Vietnam. During November of his second tour of duty in 1968, Navy Specialist 3 Clifford T. Mullen received life-threatening burns.
Cliff spent his dying days in Japan. The military provided for his mother to be at his bedside, but there was no money for his father Henry to visit. However, Cuba showed its compassion when it collected almost $1000 dollars within a week’s time in December to send his father to join his wife by Cliff’s bedside. Cliff passed away in January 1969 at the age of 22.
In 2007, two of his brothers Phil and W.D. (Delbert) Mullen wanted to commemorate their brother’s death. And they wanted to do it while their mother who was now in her 90s could experience it. Within two years, the two brothers accomplished this and touched the hearts of a town, which once more rallied around the Mullen family to remember not only their brother Cliff but also Cuba’s other military veterans who had served their country during war time.
Cuba, a town of 3500 designated as “Route 66 Mural City” by the Missouri legislature for its 12 outdoor murals celebrating the town’s history, continues its legacy of generosity. The town supported the project to recognize Cliff Mullen and Cuba’s other veterans.
“We started with the idea that we would have a mural in the center of town that would recognize Vietnam vets,” stated Phil Mullen. However, when the two brothers discussed the idea with Viva Cuba, the beautification organization that commissioned the murals, the group thought that a monument placed in the area known as Recklein Commons area would be better.
The historic area had green space, the history museum, the town library, and the historic rock Catholic Church and school complex. The brothers received permission from the city and discussed the project with the members of the Historical Society since the memorial would sit on the front lawn in front of their city-owned building. It is a location that lends itself to quiet and reflection.
The brothers embraced the idea of a granite monument and contacted Excelsior Granite in Ironton, Missouri. They decided on Missouri red granite. The project expanded as they started fundraising. “How could we put one name on it, and not all of them,” commented Phil Mullen. What occurred after the project began is a testament to the “can do” attitude in small town America.
The Mullens decided, that starting with WWI when official records were well documented, that they would honor veterans of WWI and each subsequent war and engrave the names of Cuba veterans who had served in each of the wars up to and including the Iraq war. The design would be four-sided with a pyramid and a flying eagle perched on the top. They thought it would cost about $50,000. Fundraising began with donation containers shaped like the memorial placed throughout town.
The brothers addressed organizations and held small fundraisers. The donations grew, but so did the project, and the amount that was needed became larger as time passed. Research brought forth more and more names. The brothers discovered that the red granite would display 924 names. The project went into its second year with a fundraising goal of $100,000. But the donations continued to mount, and there was no turning back.
As word of the project spread, donations came in from around the country. Donations ranged from several thousand to a few dollars. But they added up to the completion of a dream. In the end, over 360 donations made the Veterans Memorial a reality, and donations still come in to finish and maintain the project.
“We would get discouraged, someone would come along and encourage us, and we would take another go at it,” commented Phil Mullen when discussing the long project to raise the needed funds
With a good portion of the money raised, the granite was trucked from Missouri to Keystone Memorial in Elberton, GA for engraving. Stencils of the names were placed over the red granite slabs and cut out by hand. Then sandblasting etched the names of Cuba’s veterans from the wars into the town’s history.
Local contractor Dave Workman, himself a Vietnam vet whose name was on the memorial, built the concrete foundation that would be the base for the monument. Although they were a few thousand dollars short of what was needed to finish the project, the work went forward.
Keystone transported the monument to Cuba at the end of October 2008 to erect it for a Veterans Day dedication in November. Placing the monument and the pyramid on top was an event in itself. That day found many in attendance to watch the event and take photos. Florence Mullen’s sons Delbert and Phil brought her from a car where she was being kept warm on the cold, breezy day so that she could see the monument lifted into place by a large crane.
As the three gazed on the culmination of months of work, the bittersweet looks on their faces told the story. The Missouri granite honored the lives of so many who had left their homes to fight in our country’s wars and fulfilled a goal, but the loss of Cliff Mullen weighed on their minds.
The monument was dedicated on Veterans Day. State and local officials spoke and an honor guard placed a wreath on the memorial as a bagpiper played a haunting tune. The event was particularly poignant as 97 year-old Florence Mullen, accompanied by her son Delbert, stood by the monument and observed the honor guard place a wreath under the engraved name of her son Cliff. Not only was her son Cliff honored, but also the names of six of her seven sons were engraved on the memorial.
The solemn sound of “Taps” at the end of the ceremony reminded bystanders that while some sacrifice by going off to war, others sacrifice by giving their lives. Eight names with a star by them denote soldiers who died in the wars.
Afterward the ceremony, families circled the monument to read the names of friends and family who had served in the wars. Hands reached out to touch a name. A circle by a name indicated that the soldier had been in more than one war. Veterans looked at the names and at each other, tacitly understanding what it meant to have recognition of their sacrifices.
Many photographs recorded the event, and a slice of Cuba’s history took its place in front of the museum. If you travel to Cuba, visit Smith Street at the intersection of the museum, the historic rock Catholic Church, and the town library. In the area, you will see a flag, an eagle, a cross, and Cuba’s Veterans Memorial. You will find the culmination of two brothers’ dream that honors us all.
Update: Florence Mullen is now 99 years-old. In May, 2010, she was recognized by Secretary of State Robin Carnahan as being one of the oldest voting Democrats in Missouri. She has voted in every election since women got the vote. According to a recent Cuba Free Press article she has always been a fan of Harry Truman. She used Truman as the middle name of her son Clifford, who was killed in the Vietnam War.
2011 Update: Mrs. Mullen is still going strong.
In November, 2011 Mrs. Mullen celebrated her 100 birthday at Recklein Auditorium, which is adjacent to the Memorial. Read about it here.
It has become an annual tradition that a Veterans Day Ceremony is held at the Memorial.
For information on names being added to the memorial, read this blog.
A Reminder: The Veterans Memorial should be treated with respect. It is not a playground for climbing or a bench. Food and drink should not be placed on it, and it is not a proper place to discard cigarette butts.