Anita Dixon stalked around Veterans Memorial Park on Memorial Day morning, a mother on a mission to make sure no one ever forgets her son Sgt. Evan Parker and his fallen comrades.
Dixon, who lost her son in Iraq in 2005, came up with a way to channel her grief into action. As a Gold Star Mother (mothers who have lost children at war) she proposed the Operation Freedom Memorial, a granite-and-bronze tribute, to join the others downtown honoring those who fought for America.
Monday morning, about 300 of Dixon’s friends and supporters gathered to run and walk her dream closer to reality. The first Operation Armed Forces Celebration 5K and Walk, a fundraiser for the memorial, was packed with emotion as families and runners gathered to pay tribute.
“The memorial is really important, so people can see and remember the sacrifice our sons and daughters have made for the country and not forget,” said walker Sandy Nettleton of Wichita, whose son Army Staff Sgt. Eric Nettleton died Jan. 5, 2011, in Afghanistan.
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“I’m here for the memorial to get built,” said John Palmer of Wichita, whose son Army Cpl. Eric Palmer died in Iraq in 2007. “Anything we can do to get this memorial built is a step in the right direction.”
Dixon, president of the Operation Freedom Memorial Foundation, is moving ever closer to getting that memorial built. The foundation wants to raise another $90,000 to begin construction and on June 11 will unveil the bronze sculpture that will sit atop the memorial: a 6-foot bronze kneeling soldier next to a soldier’s cross. Around the memorial will be granite paving stones engraved with the names of any service member past or present, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Those 700 stones are available to family members for $100 each through the foundation.
Monday’s race was the brainchild of Dixon’s biggest supporters: Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission head Bob Hanson and Cargill employees Laura Figueroa and Kurt Wiedenkeller.
“I became a board member of the Operation Freedom Memorial and this is really close to my heart,” Figueroa said. “My husband is in Afghanistan, and he’s on his third deployment having been through Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“We just needed an event to bring the community together, promote this great project, and bring people to Veterans Park.”
Hanson said the race was a natural fit for his sports commission.
“We just thought this was a great cause,” He said. “These folks from Cargill came to me a month ago and said they’d like to do a race and they’d never done one. We weren’t much more experienced, having done a couple, but we wanted to be involved and help them put this race together.”
Dixon has the proposed Operation Freedom Memorial spot picked out near the south edge of the park, facing the river between the Vietnam and USS Wichita memorials. And while she lost her son in Iraq, Dixon is intent on opening the Operation Freedom memorial to any soldier.
“I just feel the need to have those we’ve lost from Iraq and Afghanistan memorialized out here alongside everybody else,” she said. “It’s another way to honor those who have served past and present from any generation.”
Important to fill out the memorial park, Nettleton said. Hopefully for good.
“No more,” she said. “Every time you see another soldier lost in the paper it tears at your heart because you know there’s another family, another mom who will walk through this.”
Dixon is intent on raising the $90,000 necessary to finish the memorial within a year.
“We can build this,” she said, “so that there’s a place we can come and know that all of our children and all of our family members who served are together.”