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Lasting tribute sought for veterans of Mideast wars

The flat, grass-covered patch of land just down the hill from the visitors center at The Highground Veterans Memorial Park eventually will be so much more than that.

It will be a place where visitors can learn about and reflect on the meaning of U.S. military actions in the Middle East.

It will be a location where veterans of those conflicts and their families can reflect on their experiences and hopefully find a sense of healing.

And it will be a site where the lives of soldiers who died in those conflicts, including those from northwestern Wisconsin, will be remembered.

That is the vision of a couple of dozen people who are members of a committee to create a new memorial to add to the existing tributes at The Highground, four miles west of Neillsville. For the past five years, that committee, comprised of military veterans, Highground officials and family members of veterans who served -- and sometimes died -- in the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, has worked to make the tribute memorial a reality.

The group, named the Persian Gulf Tribute Committee, has selected a memorial design -- an 85-foot-long bootprint intended to represent the literal and figurative impact of U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf and has raised nearly $200,000 toward the project.

Committee members still must raise about $600,000 to complete the memorial, designed to include several statues representing different facets of U.S. military action in the Mideast. But after much work and some struggles, they feel close enough to their goal to schedule a groundbreaking ceremony Saturday at the location where the memorial will stand.

"We felt this was something that needed to be done," said committee member Nancy Olson, whose husband, Todd, of Loyal, died Dec. 27, 2004, while serving in Iraq. "You don't know how to say 'Thank you' to the veterans for all they give up. This is something we felt we could do to say that."

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Each night before she goes to bed, Celeste Kaufman blows her son, Charles, a kiss goodnight.

Charles doesn't live at the Kaufman's home anymore. The soldier who grew up in rural Fairchild (his parents have since moved to rural Colby) died at age 20 while serving in Iraq on June 26, 2005, when a roadside bomb detonated next to the military transport vehicle he was driving.

That nightly ritual is one way Celeste keeps her son's memory alive. She hopes the memorial she has helped design is another.

"This is something I can still do for Charles because he's not here," Celeste said of her work on the memorial.

***

The committee's work began after Highground officials mentioned the possibility of building a Persian Gulf memorial and said federal money may be available to help fund the effort. The project began to take shape as members of the Wisconsin Army National Guard's 1st Battalion, 128th Infantry Division, Co. C family readiness group, designed to help military families support each other, discussed the idea.

Eventually a committee was formed and its membership grew. The group's work was difficult, members said, as people had different ideas of what the memorial should look like.

"This is the first memorial (at The Highground) that is being planned while a war is ongoing, and that has made it difficult to plan because we are trying to have the foresight to include representation of the entire era," said committee secretary 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.

Adding to planning difficulties was the fact some committee members -- including Brandon Hensiak -- were deployed, dragging out the planning process.

"It's a huge undertaking," Amanda Hensiak said. "None of us knew what this would be like until we got into it."

Despite those challenges, the committee continued its work. It send out design requests and selected the bootprint depiction created by Blue Design Group of Hortonville. The monument will include exacting details such as specific military clothing worn by soldiers in the Persian Gulf and expressions on the faces of statues intended to represent the emotions of soldiers and their families.

"We want this to be meaningful to the veterans and everyone else who sees it," Olson said.

***

Joel Brockman, committee vice president, never served in the military. But he knows all too well the toll war can take.

Brockman's stepson, Andrew Wallace, a 25-year-old elementary school gym teacher in Oshkosh who had been married for one year, was killed by a roadside bomb while serving in Iraq on Sept. 26, 2005.

Shortly after Andrew's funeral, Brockman and his wife, Janie, made the drive from Ripon to Neillsville in an effort to mend their broken hearts.

"We were really hurting," Brockman recalled. "It was a beautiful fall day and we were greeted so warmly by The Highground staff. It really hit home with us. This was a place of healing."

Inspired by that visit, the Brockmans decided they wanted to pay tribute in some way to U.S. military actions in the Persian Gulf. They were subsequently contacted by people starting the memorial effort and decided to take part, with Joel Brockman becoming committee vice chairman.

It wasn't easy. The Brockmans sometimes had difficulty attending committee meetings simply because of the long drive between Ripon and Neillsville. And the couple struggled with the loss of Andrew.

At one point, as the Brockmans were out for a drive, Janie asked her husband whether they should back out of the memorial effort. Suddenly an eagle flew across the road in front of their vehicle.

"Janie took that as a sign," Brockman said. "She said, "OK, let's stick with it."

***

Celeste Kaufman still can't watch the nightly news or movies depicting war because of the emotional scars left by Charles' death. The anniversary of the day he died is especially difficult.

But, like the Brockmans, she credits her work on the memorial with helping dispel some of the hurt resulting from the loss of her son. She hopes the memorial offers others impacted by the war a similar sense of healing.

"Building something like this memorial that keeps the memories alive can hopefully bring people a sense of peace," she said.

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