Operation Freedom Memorial honoring fallen troops dedicated in Wichita

05/17/2014 6:18 PM

05/17/2014 6:18 PM

Anita Dixon held her son in her arms as she and her family removed him from life support and made a promise to him.

“You will never, ever be forgotten. You will always be remembered. Your name will constantly be spoken,” she told U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Parker, who died in 2005 from wounds he suffered while he was deployed in Iraq.

On Saturday, Dixon helped dedicate the new Operation Freedom Memorial at Wichita’s Veterans Memorial Park nestled along the Arkansas River. The new memorial, spearheaded by Dixon, honors those who have died in the war on terrorism. Dixon is president and founder of Operation Freedom Memorial Foundation Inc., the nonprofit group that raised money for the memorial.

“I am no one special,” Dixon said before hundreds of people who had gathered in the park on a sunny, cool day. “I am just a mother who sent her son off to war, and he did not come home.”

To the families of fallen soldiers across the state, she promised: “Your loved ones will always be remembered.”

The memorial is unique in that the troops it honors died in wars that are ongoing.

Capt. Nick Williams, who was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base when he began working with the foundation., reminded those gathered that “it is our responsibility as countrymen and neighbors to honor, remember and support” the sacrifices of those who have served their country.

“Kansas started this project in the midst of the battle,” he said. “The significance of this sanctuary cannot be overstated. This memorial is one step on the traumatic path to healing.”

Williams, a board member of the foundation, is now stationed at Dover Air Force Base. He said his move to Dover seemed fitting. The base is where the bodies of military members killed overseas are flown stateside.

Wichita Vice Mayor Jeff Blubaugh called the park, and the memorial, a “place to reflect. ... Wichita is a city that respects its veterans.”

To those gathered, he said, “Never allow time to erase the sentiment of this gathering today.”

U.S. Rep Mike Pompeo, R-Wichita, said those honored at the Operation Freedom Memorial “entered service at a very difficult time. They are warriors.”

John Wilson, executive vice president of the foundation, said he volunteered in 2009 to work on the project.

“I had no idea what I was in for when I raised my hand,” he joked.

The original estimate for the project was $300,000, which seemed daunting in this economy. The foundation chiseled the budget down to $223,000 and was able to build the memorial for $133,000. Many people and companies donated materials and labor to make that happen, Wilson said.

The memorial itself features a bronze soldier created by sculptor Sherry Hoffman. Hoffman wiped away tears as foundation leaders thanked her for working on the project at a reasonable cost.

Dixon said the first time she touched the statue, “I was flooded with peace and honor and respect ... and the purest gratitude for the price they paid.”

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