Crowd gathers to launch new war memorial in Wisconsin
Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis.
NEILLSVILLE, Wis. — One by one the names rent the air, each followed by 100 or so people gathered on a patch of ground at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park Saturday afternoon saying "present."
After the first 10 names were read, a bell rang out, followed by another 10 names and another bell ringing.
Solemnly, the audience continued through the ceremony, repeating "present" after the name of each Wisconsin member of the U.S. military who has died in service in the Middle East was read, a total that has reached 138. Some in the audience looked quietly at the ground. Others cried. A tear wet the wrinkled cheek of one bearded military veteran.
The crowd gathered at The Highground came together to mark the ground-breaking of a Persian Gulf war memorial that will be constructed at the location down the hill from the visitor’s center in the form of a military boot print. But they were there to remember too.
"It’s a powerful, emotional experience," Kirk Rodman, volunteer general manager at The Highground, said of the name-reading modeled after military roll call that has been part of ceremonies at The Highground for the past 18 months. "It’s a way to remember the veterans who have given so much for us, a way to make sure they aren’t forgotten."
A couple of minutes after the first name was announced, the names of two soldiers from this part of the state who died in Iraq were read, just a few names from each other. First came Todd Olson, a Wisconsin Army National Guard soldier from Loyal who died Dec. 27, 2004, the first day the Eau Claire-based 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Division, Co. C he was a member of went on patrol in the dangerous region near the Iraqi city of Samarra.
Olson’s wife, Nancy, was present at the ceremony, haven driven from Oshkosh, where she now lives. She and others — many of whom lost loved ones in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — began work five years ago to make the Persian Gulf tribute memorial a reality.
Celeste Kaufman was there too, along with her husband, Mark. The name of their son, Charles, was read just after Todd Olson’s. Charles, of Fairchild, served in Co. C with Olson and died exactly six months after Olson when the vehicle he was driving was blown up by an improvised explosive device.
Celeste and Mark were despondent about the loss of their beloved 20-year-old son. But the couple has used his death as a means of inspiring them to do more. Celeste joined the effort to build a monument to U.S. military action in the Middle East, and she, Nancy Olson and others worked, bit by bit, to move the project forward.
That work wasn’t easy. Convincing people — some of whom were struggling with the loss of loved ones in war — to serve on the committee wasn’t easy. Committee members often disagreed about what the monument should include and how it should look. And there was the daunting task of raising the estimated $750,000 to pay for the project, designed to be an 85-foot-long boot print to include cement barriers modeled on those used to protect soldiers in the Middle East and statues depicting various aspects of the impacts of war on military families.
"There were a lot of tough times, times when we wanted to give up," said committee member Amanda Hensiak, of Neillsville, whose husband, committee president Brandon Hensiak, served in Iraq with Charles Kaufman and Todd Olson and was deployed again in 2009. "But we kept going. We kept working on it and now we’ve reached the point where we can have this ceremony. It feels really good."
Connie Braun of Abbotsford became a committee member two years ago, prodded in part by her son, Stanton, a U.S. Marine who served in the Middle East twice between 1995 and 2001 and was a high school classmate of Nancy Olson.
Braun said committee members gain a sense of support from each other.
"Many of them have gone through the pain of losing a loved one in war and the worries that go with having someone overseas," Braun said. "Having others to lean on has given them strength."
Way to remember
That’s certainly the case for Celeste Kaufman, who said her involvement with the committee helped her heal from the devastating loss of her son. The Persian Gulf tribute committee also provided Celeste with an outlet to work on Charles’ behalf. During Saturday’s ceremony she read a story she submitted to a contest detailing her family’s last Christmas with Charles. That letter has prompted Chicago-based food producer Land O’Frost to donate $13,000 toward the project. The committee has raised more than $200,000 toward the project.
Celetse kept her composure as she read the story. But she was attempting to keep a cap on a flood of emotions, she said later.
"I was really nervous," she said, smiling. "But I do things like this because it’s something I can do for Charles."
Michael Dosland, a lieutenant colonel with the 128th Infantry Division who supervised the company Charles Kaufman and Todd Olson served in, made the trip from Cedarburg to attend Saturday’s ceremony. He recalled the difficult times dealing with the deaths of Charles and Todd in Iraq and said the memorial will serve as a means of remembering soldiers lost in wars.
"It’s meaningful to be here, to know that there is a memorial for these veterans from Wisconsin, to know that they will be remembered."