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Oregon Leads America in Recognition of War HeroesBonnie King, Salem-News.com
The Afghan-Iraqi Freedom Memorial is the first in the entire country to remember fallen heroes of today's conflicts
(SALEM) - In an incredible stroke of good fortune, the sun broke free this afternoon and held its place throughout the dedication of the Afghan-Iraq Freedom Memorial.
The crowd gathered early, and amassed about 400 by 2:00, when the ceremony began.
Dorcas Smith sang a breathtaking rendition of the National anthem, a cappella, and the invocation by Col. Richard Meyers set the tone for a very patriotic and reverent dedication.
“On time and on budget,” were Bill McMichael’s words. “We couldn’t have done it, without the help and generosity of so many great people.” Construction of the memorial has been underway since June of 2005, but the erection of the statue and fountain began September 11th, only two months ago. “No one could believe we’d do this in just two months, they said it would take five. And we wouldn’t have been able to, if it hadn’t been for everybody getting involved and making it happen.” Bill had been on the site seven days a week since groundbreaking, determined to meet the goal set my Governor Kulongoski, Veteran’s Day.
“If I had to get something built, there’s no builder I’d rather have than Bill McMichael. But you couldn’t hire him for this job. No, this job he did out of love,” remarked Jim Willis, Oregon’s Director of Veterans’ Affairs. Love, that is what drove Bill, “I believe the best way to have a friend is to be one, and that’s without boundaries.” Clearly, many others live by the same rule, starting with the Kesterson’s. M.J. and Clay Kesterson lost their son, Chief Warrant Officer Erik Kesterson while fighting in Iraq. This memorial brings some sense of resolve to their loss, and to so many other Gold Star families in Oregon, whom have all had a family member killed in these conflicts since 2001.
Governor Ted Kulongoski was keynote speaker at the event on Summer Street, just a few blocks from the Capitol. Eloquently introduced by Jim Willis, the Governor spoke of his great respect for all Veterans, and reiterated the calling card of the Afghan-Iraq Foundation, “Freedom isn’t free.” Listing each of the many Oregon cities that have suffered the loss of a soldier or Marine, the Governor honored the fallen and their families with sensitivity, and respect.
The Adjutant General, MG Raymond Rees, spoke of the duty and dedication behind a soldier. M.J. and Clay Kesterson thanked the audience and especially the Gold Star Families for their support of this project, and also their son, Erik, for all the goodness he has brought into their lives, even after his death.
Representative Donna Nelson, recovering from heart surgery, was grateful to be in attendance. An avid supporter of Oregon troops, past and present, Nelson joins Darlene Hooley in her ongoing efforts to help them in any way possible. She read a letter from Darlene Hooley, who could not be there, giving homage to those who have given their lives, and to all the families who have made the greatest sacrifice. “We do feel your pain, and we want you to know you are not alone. You will never be alone.”
SFC Vince “Vinny” Jacques, a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Purple Heart recipient, who now helps service members transition back to civilian life after deployment as a member of the Oregon National Guard Reintegration, has come to know many of the Gold Star families, and gave them special recognition, and reminded those still in uniform to “keep your blade sharpened. This isn’t over.”
The author, John Bruining, who spent 18 months documenting the experiences of soldiers in Iraq wrote "The Devil's Sandbox"a book about Oregon National Guard soldiers, shared a touching poem by Walt Whitman, written after the Civil War.
Interrupted by the approach of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter from the Oregon National Guard's 1042nd Medical Company, Mr. Bruining exclaimed, “That’s the sound of freedom, ladies and gentlemen!” Which gained a round of applause.
It was a much more poignant moment for the Kesterson’s though. Their son, Erik, killed in 2003, was a Blackhawk pilot. The propeller noise grew louder as the helicopter came in close for the fly over; slowly the pilot turned, circled the event, and then flew out of sight. The crowd was silent. It was a surreal moment, as if we had been witness to something spiritual. M.J. watched the helicopter fly away, took a breath, and her husband’s arm, and returned to the present.
Dorcas Smith led the group in “God Bless America”, bringing tears to even the driest eyes. As Willis concluded the ceremony, he made a solemn promise: to take care of the memorial that is now part of the landscape of the Veterans’ Affairs property, forever.
After TAPS was played on the bagpipe by Jon Moritz, and the North Salem High School Army Jr. ROTC retired the Colors, came the moment everyone had been waiting for.
Together, the crowd turned, and they watched as the covering was untied from the statue and pulled away to reveal the 8-foot bronze soldier, down on one knee over the United States, with an outstretched arm. “Stretched out to the world,” says M.J. Kesterson. The world on which he sits is an oval pool with constantly moving water. It is lined with a stainless-steel map of the world. Then the fountain of water launched into the air, sending the crowd into more applause and awe.
“It’s incredible, beautiful,” said one bystander. Another noted that, though there has been some dispute over the timing of the memorial, “This will mean a lot more to people than they think. Once they see it, they’ll understand. This is the perfect time to show people that we respect our Veterans and all fallen soldiers.”
The very first Memorial in the United States for the Afghan-Iraq conflicts, Oregon sets a precedent for others to follow.
For generations upon generations to come, the Afghan-Iraq Freedom Memorial will be a place of solitude, of remembering, of healing, of understanding. As Chaplain Col. Richard Meyers said, “What better place for such a memorial, than in Salem, the city of peace.”
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan - to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations." Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865.
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