Print This Article The Wichita Eagle Back to web version
Monday, July 28, 2014

Soldier's mom leads effort for war memorial

By RICK PLUMLEE
The Wichita Eagle

At November’s dedication of the World War II monument at Veterans Memorial Park, Anita Dixon walked up to Phil Blake and gave him a hug.

Through tears, she expressed gratitude for his efforts in helping make the monument possible and discouragement because fundraising for another monument, the Operation Freedom Memorial, wasn’t going well.

“Anita, you’re a soldier, you can’t give up,” the World War II veteran and unofficial caretaker of Wichita’s war memorials told her.

Dixon may not be a soldier in the traditional sense, but her son, Army Sgt. Evan Parker, was. He was killed in Iraq in 2005.

A mother’s broken heart fueled a mother in action.

She began working in early 2010 to build a monument in Veterans Memorial Park to honor all Kansans killed in wars since Desert Storm. More than 80 Kansans have died in those wars. A nonprofit was formed and the small group began raising money in June 2010.

Dixon hopes to start construction by March 1 and have the monument up and ready so it can be dedicated on Memorial Day, May 28.

“But we need to have all our funds secured before we can start construction,” she said.

So far the group has raised about $63,000 for the $200,000 project. It’s not from lack of trying.

A golf tournament last summer netted $2,400 for the memorial. Over two days in July, Wichitan Tony Clark, a Marine veteran of Afghanistan, gutted his way through a 135-mile run from California’s Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney to bring in $6,000.

Augusta’s Denise Lange, whose Army son, Pfc. Erin Thomas, was killed in a 2009 car accident in Texas, has raised nearly $10,000 by selling “In Honor of Fallen Soldiers” medallions. Cargill kicked in $3,500.

The organization received its fattest check recently when the Kansas Star Casino sent it $21,000. The memorial was among nonprofits selected by the new casino to split the gambling profits from its controlled demonstration held Dec. 16.

Pavers selling slowly

And then there’s Nick Williams, a tanker pilot at McConnell Air Force Base who has served in Southwest Asia. He has pulled in $4,400 so far from the 1,300 training miles he has logged since May in preparation to run marathons, including one Jan. 15 in Phoenix.

Since November 2010, the group has been trying to sell commemorative gray granite paving stones for $100 each to honor anyone who is serving in the military now or has at any time in the past. Fewer than 40 have been sold.

About 700 of the 6-by-10-inch pavers can fit in the circle in front of the three 7-foot-tall black granite panels that will contain the names of the Kansans who have died.

The pavers are selling considerably more slowly than the $100 commemorative bricks sold to help fund the $35,000 World War II memorial. The World War II group also began offering its bricks in the fall of 2010, and the selling pace didn’t pick up until June, after it obtained its official nonprofit status. It quickly sold more than 1,000 bricks.

But organizers understand why there’s a difference in response.

With the number of World War II veterans dying at a rate of 1,000 per day, there was a sense of urgency to get that monument done. Plus, those interested in buying the bricks were often children and grandchildren of the World War II vets.

“Family members wanted to see their members honored and remembered before we lost them,” Dixon said.

The Operation Freedom Memorial is for today’s generation of vets, and in most cases they haven’t had a chance to accumulate significant financial resources. Many are also still serving overseas.

The memorial also represents wars that haven’t had the unified support of Americans that World War II had.

“That’s absolutely true,” said Blake, 88, an Army sergeant who served in the South Pacific. But those who have served in subsequent wars have sacrificed just as much and deserve to be honored, he added.

“Anita has a worthy project,” Blake said. “It needs to be done.”

She just doesn’t want it to take decades to get the memorial built, as was the case for most of the monuments in Veterans Memorial Park. This will be the state’s first memorial for the wars since Desert Storm.

“It’s a reminder of what they’ve done for us,” Dixon said. “It’s a place for all these Kansas soldiers to be together in one place.”

Moving forward

Williams, who is on the memorial’s board, became aware of the project shortly after he was transferred to McConnell in March. The 29-year-old marathoner discovered Veterans Memorial Park while running through it from his Old Town home on the way to the river.

“I always thought it was a neat place,” said Williams, a North Carolina native whose two grandfathers served in World War II. “So when I heard about building the memorial to something currently going on, I thought, I want to be involved in this.

“One thing I’ve always thought important was leaving a legacy, leaving a place better than you found it.”

Williams saw his chance to help after competing in the Boston Marathon in April. When word got out that he was running in the event, he was surprised how many people he heard from across the country.

He decided to capitalize on that attention by accepting donations to the memorial for the miles he logs while training and actually running marathons. At 50 miles per week, he piles them up quickly.

About 20 people so far have contributed to Williams’ miles. All donations can be made through the group’s website, www.ofm-ks.com.

The bronze statue and battlefield cross that will sit in the center of the memorial are expected to be completed this spring. The group hopes to put them on display around Wichita. So while the project’s process may seem slow, it is moving forward.

“Basically, our board is attempting to build this memorial a generation early,” Williams said. “Instead of waiting 20 or 30 years for the raw feelings of war to subdue, we’re trying to memorialize those lost while the conflict is current.”

Reach Rick Plumlee at 316-268-6660 or rplumlee@wichitaeagle.com.

© 2012 Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansas.com