By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
Budd Gilbert was lost and on a path to destruction until he met Brian Mancini.
“At that time, I was pretty messed up,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I was what Brian liked to call a ‘soup sandwich.’”
Mr. Gilbert, a war veteran, was suffering from external and internal injuries, before Mr. Mancini, himself a wounded combat veteran, helped him get his life back in order.
“My son recently told me that he was grateful, and he respected Brian, which was unusual for me because he never met Brian,” Mr. Gilbert said. “He said, ‘Brian gave me my dad back.’”
Ground was officially broken June 24 on the Veterans Reflection Circle that is being created in Mr. Mancini’s honor between the lake and the Northwest Regional Library, 16089 N. Bullard Ave.
Emotional tributes like Mr. Gilbert’s were among the positive remembrances family and friends had for Mr. Mancini, the combat-wounded Surprise resident who took his own life in 2017 after years of helping other veterans restore their lives after the trauma of war.
It’s designed to be a constant reminder of what the Surprise resident sacrificed as an Army sergeant and how much of a difference the Army combat medic made upon his return to civilian life.
The $200,000 project that will allow people to take a break from walking the lake trail or have a quiet spot to think outside of the library.
More than 100 people from across the community watched Mr. Mancini’s mother, father and sister join Mayor Skip Hall and the City Council in driving in the shovels for the ceremonial groundbreaking.
“He spent his time on Earth making a difference for others,” Mr Hall said.
Mr. Mancini became a noted Surprise veteran after serving two tours in Iraq as a combat medic.
He served 12 years in the Army and earned numerous awards and commendations -- including two Purple Hearts, the Combat Action Badge, Air Assault Badge and Flight Medic Badge.
Unfortunately, his life changed in July 2007 when he was wounded by a roadside bomb that exploded, shattering his face and knocking out his teeth.
“Brian didn’t feel sorry for himself,” said fellow veteran Jesse Westad, the owner of WERK Urban Design and Engineering, the memorial’s designer. “He spent the next four years battling it out, going through numerous surgeries.”
Mr. Mancini eventually returned to the Valley to open the non-profit Honor House, a Phoenix-based facility providing services, therapy and counseling for wounded veterans. Mr. Mancini realized veterans who were dealing with post-traumatic injuries needed more than just the mainstream forms of therapy.
He started a program called Operation Healing Journey, which was a 90-day program that helped veterans assimilate to civilian life once they returned from war.
He gave me the tools and support to reclaim my life back,” said Mr. Gilbert, who is now a board member for the Honor House. “Brian didn’t heal me, but he showed me the flashlight to find the path of healing.
“I can still hear his voice telling me today that I don’t give up.”
Unfortunately for Mr. Mancini, he also battled his own demons, which ultimately resulted in the end of his life.
His parents, John Mancini and Jackie Williams, and his sister, Nicole Mancini, listened to emotional stories of people he touched at last week’s groundbreaking.
“They have kind of become the adopted family of Surprise, and that will last forever,” City Manager Mike Frazier said.
Mr. Hall told his parents: “Thank you for raising a man of courage and integrity whose loving heart and gentle soul impacted this city for good and brought healing to so many.”
The project won’t be setting the city back any money, thanks to dozens of partners who are contributing their time.
Local design companies Logan Simpson and WERK are spearheading the project with Haydon Building Corp., the group working on Ottawa University Arizona’s expansion in Surprise, the project’s general contractor.
Mr. Westad said Mr. Mancini wouldn’t have even wanted a memorial.
“He doesn’t want it centered on him,” Mr. Westad said. “He wants to take care of the veterans.”
Yet, that didn’t stop planners from going all out to honor him and other veterans.
“I thought, ‘How do we design this for everybody? How do we make this a different kind of place?’” Westad said. “I didn’t want this to be the Applebee’s of veterans memorials”
Sure enough, the design impressed Mr. Frazier, who was part of the committee that initially imagined a small pond and a plaque. The designers who stepped forward to donate their services changed the entire perception of the project.
“I personally was blown away when I saw what they had come up with,” Mr. Frazier said. “It was so many zip codes outside of what I thought it would be. It was ridiculous. But thank gosh, that’s what happened.”
The city first had ideas to honor Mr. Mancini last year after he killed himself in 2017.
The Honoring an Exceptional Leader Task Force, made up of citizens and city staffers, gathered to find a way to honor his memory. After going through proposals, the task force recommended the current design to the Council, which it approved in December.
Mr. Mancini loved nature, fishing and having a quiet spot to think, so organizers said that made the space outside the library in the Surprise Community Park a natural spot for the memorial. Water and plant life will be a big component of it.
A plaque in the front will tell Mr. Mancini’s story and explain how the community can reflect, find healing and appreciate the service and sacrifice of veterans.
“The City Council believed it was important to honor this exceptional leader by giving the community something to remember him by,” Mr. Hall said. “That carries his legacy forward where all veterans can go to feel valued and to find healing.”
This isn’t the first time Mr. Mancini has been honored, thanks to his story being told on “60 Minutes” and the Oprah Winfrey network.
“Brian’s accomplishments are pretty well-known -- not only around the Valley, but his effect across the country,” Mr. Gilbert said.
Mr. Gilbert said a fishing pond in Virginia is named after Mr. Mancini.
Haydon officials said Mr. Mancini’s special story made it an easy decision to donate services to the project.
“Very rarely in our business do you have something that you can be totally selfless and … very rarely do you get the opportunity to be a part of something extremely special,” said James Crean, the vice president of business development with Haydon. “It’s so personal to this community that we had to be a part of it.”
Other groups donating services include nurseries, a fence company, a sign company and a host of construction companies.
The project is expected to be ready by Veterans Day.
“Because of Brian’s passing, the mission didn’t stop,” Westad said. “His legacy continues on to this day and will always continue because of him and the people he has impacted.”