Martin Harding never served in the military, but he has a passion for supporting those who have, or are in uniform now.
Some of those are in his family.
His grandfather, Jack, a Pearl Harbor survivor, served in World War II and during the Korean War. His father, John, served during the Vietnam War. His son, Brad, is in the Air Force and is stationed in California.
To honor them, Martin and his siblings are buying three commemorative paving stones for the Operation Freedom Memorial being developed for Veterans Memorial Park near downtown Wichita.
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The memorial’s black granite panels will list the names of all Kansans killed since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, including those lost during Desert Storm and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of dead now stands at 92.
But the pavers, sold for $100 each, are for honoring all military veterans or those who are currently serving. Jack, John and Brad span three generations of service.
“I want to honor them for serving and fighting for our freedom,” said Martin, a medical technologist at Wesley Medical Center.
Actually, the family has veterans that extend far beyond the three men.
“I have ancestors who were in the Civil War on both sides,” John said. “I’m sure glad they missed shooting each other.”
As the nation gathers Monday for Memorial Day to honor those who have died while serving in the military, thoughts also turn to the experiences of those who have survived the wars. Jack Harding had one of the family’s most storied histories in uniform.
“But he was reluctant to talk about the war for many, many years,” John said. “I told him I’d like to know so I can tell the grandkids.”
His father shared some of those details before he died in 2004.
Jack Harding, who grew up in Eureka, joined the Navy in 1938 at the age of 20. He was serving on the USS Maryland when it was moored next to the USS Oklahoma along Pearl Harbor’s battleship row on Dec. 7, 1941.
A gunner’s mate at the time, Jack found himself in the middle of the fight when the Japanese attacked that morning. The Oklahoma took the brunt of the hits from torpedoes and bombs, eventually rolling over; more than 400 crew members died.
Some of the Oklahoma’s crew climbed aboard the Maryland. Although the Japanese reported the Maryland had been sunk after being struck by two bombs, the ship made it to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard for repairs on Dec. 30.
Jack spent the rest of the war serving on a destroyer, the USS J.R.Y. Blakely, chasing German submarines and taking part in the North Africa campaign. He spent the Korean War stateside, left the Navy after putting in 20 years and eventually moved his family to Mulvane while working at Boeing.
John served in the Navy from 1965 to 1969, working in intelligence gathering as part of the war in Vietnam. Decades later, his security clearance still prevents him from discussing specifics.
“The called us spooks,” said John, who spent his post-military career working for Southwestern Bell.
Brad broke ranks with family tradition and joined the Air Force a year ago, but he followed his father in that he’s being trained in intelligence work.
“There’s really not much I can talk about,” Brad said.
But he’s thrilled to talk about why he’s in the Air Force.
“I wanted to serve my country and have better job opportunities,” said Brad, who was going to Wichita State University and working full time when he enlisted. He and his wife, Kayla, are expecting their first child in September.
“I wanted to focus all my efforts on one thing,” he added.
While growing up, he heard stories from his grandfather, great-uncles and cousins about their service time.
“I always came away with a positive attitude about serving in the military,” Brad said. “It was a source of pride.”
And now he’ll have his name on a paver alongside those of his grandfather and great-grandfather at the memorial.
“I haven’t served as much they have,” Brad said. “Just to be included is really cool.”
Anita Dixon, whose son, Army Sgt. Evan Parker, was killed in Iraq in 2005, began working on the Operation Freedom Memorial in 2010. Funds have been raised for the $233,000 project to pay for the sculpture, the granite panels, engraving and just about everything else.
About $45,000 is still needed – including $25,000 to start construction and $17,000 for sidewalks and the required donation for ongoing maintenance for all memorials built at Veterans Memorial Park, said John Wilson, executive vice president of the nonprofit that Dixon created to build the memorial. The site has space for 700 pavers, and 200 have been sold, he said.
“We hope to have it built by this fall,” Wilson said.
For John Harding, he’s grateful family members thought about buying the pavers.
“I’m glad to see patriotism is still hanging tough with my grandkids and kids,” he said. “This country is never short of patriotism.”