Chris Leon is very patriotic and would be thrilled if he could be a U.S. soldier.
“I love soldiers,” he said.
Leon, 22, has Down syndrome. He won’t be able to join the military, but that hasn’t kept him from honoring those who have served and especially those who have died while serving.
He gave nearly $1,000 to help build the Operation Freedom Memorial, including his first paycheck from Chick-fil-A after graduating from Maize High School in 2012.
Saturday morning, on a sunny fall day along the Arkansas River, he grabbed a shovel and helped with the groundbreaking for the project at Wichita’s Veterans Memorial Park.
He smiled as he put an arm around Anita Dixon, whose son, Army Sgt. Evan Parker, was killed in Iraq. Dixon has been the driving force in establishing the memorial that honors all Kansans who have died while serving in the military since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Chris may be a challenged person,” she said, “but it doesn’t limit his heart.”
While at Maize High as a senior, Leon received $50 for Christmas from the staff at TMC’s Ace Hardware for his hard work while helping at the store as part of class.
He donated the money to the memorial. A short time later, Dixon came to the store and put her son’s Fallen Soldier medallion around Leon’s neck.
“I cried,” he said.
Leon said he was also thinking at that moment of his grandpa, Dallas Petersen, his fallen soldier who was a Korean War veteran and who had died earlier that year from cancer.
Patriotism has always been a part of who Leon is, said Pat Leon, his mother.
When he was about 10, his father put up a flag pole in the front yard. Every day after that on the way home for school, he would salute the flag before entering the house.
“If you’re wearing a uniform – soldier, police officer, firefighter – he’ll give you a salute,” Pat Leon said.
Chris Leon first learned about the Operation Freedom Memorial effort while attending a concert by 4 Soldiers in December 2010 at the Orpheum Theatre. The singing group made up of former soldiers held the event as a fundraiser for the memorial.
When Dixon passed one of her son’s boots during intermission to collect money, Leon also cried. From then on, he attended almost every fundraiser for the event, from garage sales to runs.
He also saved money to purchase two commemorative paving stones at $100 each to honor his grandpa and a great-uncle, who served in the military.
The pavers will be placed around a statue of a kneeling soldier and the three black granite panels, which will list the names of the Kansans killed. The death total is currently 93.
Since Dixon began the effort more than three years ago, she said there have been times she wondered if it would become reality. The $225,000 project includes nearly $100,000 worth of in-kind services.
The nonprofit group received a boost recently when local companies donated materials and time. Kansas Ready Mix and Cornejo & Sons are donating the concrete. Tim Sutherland of Sutherland Construction will prepare the site and put in the concrete at cost.
“We wouldn’t be here now without that help,” Dixon said.
Concrete work is expected to begin this month. The bronze statue and granite panels will then be installed. Work is expected to be finished by early November, organizers said.
For Dixon, seeing a community come together to make it happen has been the most rewarding. Several other mothers who had lost sons in either Iraq or Afghanistan were there Saturday.
So was Leon, proudly wearing the medallion Dixon gave him around his neck.
“He’s worked his heart out for anything patriotic,” Dixon said.
That doesn’t surprise his mom.
“Chris may have Down syndrome,” she said, “but it doesn’t affect his ability to recognize these heroes.”