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With grassroots tributes, Americans remember U.S. military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan

For Andrew Habsieger's mother, an area in Festus is simply Andy's Park.
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 27, 2013. - Every day is Memorial Day at the little park in Festus named for Army Pfc. Andrew J. Habsieger, 22, who was killed in 2008 in Iraq.

Its official name is Andrew J. Habsieger Memorial Park, but his mother calls it "Andy’s park.”

The park is located off Gamel Cemetery Road behind the Lowe's store where Habsieger used to work. Lowe's donated the land to the city, and store employees built two covered picnic pavilions and help to keep the grounds tidy. The flagpole was an Eagle Scout project by a Festus High School student. A past mayor commissioned a local chainsaw sculptor to create a wooden likeness of the fallen soldier. Habsieger's parents, Brenda and Mike, plant flowers at the park and bring a new U.S. flag when the old one gets weathered.

Brenda Habsieger said the park is heartwarming, as are the tokens that people often leave near her son’s statue.

"It’s nice to go by and see people sitting in his park,” she said. "There’s a fence around his monument, and people made a cross for it. We’ve seen cards there. Flowers. On Easter, somebody brought lilies. I’ve been there when people stop, and they've asked me, 'Did you know him?’ ”

Throughout the nation on Monday, there will be traditional Memorial Day tributes, as Americans pause to honor U.S. military members who served their country. At Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery, where Habsieger is buried, there will be a parade at 9:30 a.m. and a service at 10 a.m. Local Scouts will place small flags at each of the nearly 190,000 headstones on the cemetery grounds.

Here, amid the sights and sounds of everyday life, a fallen soldier is remembered daily by family, friends, neighbors and people passing by.

The same is true in neighboring Crystal City, for Army Sgt. Brandon Lee Wallace who is remembered with a monument next to the flagpole at the high school. Wallace, 27, was killed in Fallujah in 2007, the first soldier from Jefferson County to be killed in Iraq.

Across the Mississippi River, the residents of Troy, Ill., named a road in honor of one of their own – Senior Airman Bradley R. Smith who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 while rescuing fallen comrades. He was awarded the Silver Star. At a nearby park, there is a bench in his honor, decorated with flowers and a photo of his baby girl.

In towns across America, there are similar grassroots efforts to honor -- to remember -- local heroes killed during the 12 years of war that followed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. There are streets and highways named for them. Plaques at libraries and high schools. Trees planted in community parks. Scholarship funds and memorial runs.

In these places, just as at "Andy’s Park,” every day is Memorial Day.

The Heroes Way

Ross Gartman of Cape Girardeau and his colleagues have a mission they call Heroes Way: to help pay for green highway signs placed near the hometowns of U.S. military members from Missouri who were killed in action in Afghanistan or Iraq since Sept. 11.

The signs are erected by the Missouri Department of Transportation under legislation passed in 2009. So far, there are 16 signs; the newest is on Interstate 270 at Ladue Road, in honor of Marine Lance Cpl. Matthew Clark who was killed in Iraq in 2006.

Families must apply to MoDot for the signs, which are located at interchanges, and they are responsible for the cost: $2,400 or $3,200, depending upon the size.

Army Sgt. Brandon Lee Wallace is remembered with a monument at his Crystal City high school
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
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Army Sgt. Brandon Lee Wallace is remembered with a monument at his Crystal City high school.

Gartman wants the public to know that the signs are not purchased with tax dollars. But he also believes the families should not bear that cost. To help them raise funds for the signs, his organization holds various events, including an annual "March for Memories” at Cape County Park North in Cape Girardeau.

"We’re actually trying to recognize every single soldier from the state of Missouri, regardless of where they’re from,” said Gartman who served two tours of duty in Iraq with the Missouri Army National Guard. "The goal is to recognize them all.”

He said the idea for the signs grew out of his attempts to memorialize his friend -- Staff Sgt. Bradley Skelton, 40, of Gordonville who was killed in Baghdad on Feb. 6, 2008, when his vehicle struck an improvised explosive device. Skelton had come out of retirement to serve a second tour in Iraq.

"He volunteered to go so somebody who had children wouldn’t have to,” Gartman said.

He believes that it is important that casualties from the war on terrorism be remembered in their hometowns. He noted the Honor Flight program that transports World War II veterans to Washington D.C. so they can see their national memorial -- a tribute that wasn't completed until 2004, six decades after that war ended.

"I wanted something that the community and the family and everybody could see at a local level -- and be reminded of the sacrifice,” he said.

Gartman said families often hold their own fundraisers, and if they raise more than the cost of the signs for their loved ones, they contribute the remainder to help pay for signs for other Missouri soldiers. He estimates that there are at least 100 more who are eligible, and he would like to see the program extended to include all of the nation's wars.

The Missouri Military Memorial Foundation

Army Sgt. Amanda Pinson, 21, of Lemay was killed in Tikrit, Iraq, on March 16, 2006. Pinson, a signals intelligence analyst, was the first female soldier from Missouri to be killed in action in Iraq. Last summer, a 2-acre training support center was named in her honor at Fort Leonard Wood.

She has been honored in other ways, as well: a pink willow tree was planted in her honor at Hancock High School where she graduated in 2002; there is a Heroes Way sign for her at the Bayless exit on Interstate 55, near her childhood home. A Facebook page tribute has nearly 3,000 "likes.”

Pinson's family is also working to create a monument to honor all of Missouri’s servicemen and servicewomen who were killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan) and Desert Storm.

The nonprofit, called the Missouri Military Memorial Foundation, is headed by Chris Andrews, Pinson’s mother.

"It started with Amanda, but we knew there were other families like ourselves,” said Jennifer Jerome, Pinson’s cousin, who maintains the organization’s website.

The monument would recognize the selfless sacrifice of their loved ones who volunteered to serve their country, she said.

"They knew the risk when they signed up, and they thought that we were worthy of that risk," Jerome said. "All we want to do is make sure that they are not forgotten. And who better to make sure that it happens than their families?”

She noted that the organization includes a number of Missouri Gold Star families. Gold Star pins are presented to members of the immediate family of fallen service members by the Department of Defense.

The group has a design for the memorial and a location -- Jefferson Barracks Park in St. Louis County. It has been holding fundraisers, including an annual golf tournament that will be held June 7 at Quail Creek Golf Course.

Jerome said the cost of the memorial will be just under $1 million, and they are hoping to get a grant that will help push them toward their goal.

"We have not sought out corporate sponsorships yet. Everything has been done via donations and various fundraising events that we do,” she said.

Jerome said her cousin’s death was the hardest she’s ever had to deal with.

"Amanda was amazing. She just wanted to do her part,” Jerome said. "And that’s how they all are. They each have a story. They each had something that inspired them. Their patriotism is phenomenal. You just don’t want them to be forgotten.”

The Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial

In the little town of Marseilles, Ill., on the banks of the Illinois River, hundreds of volunteers have worked to construct and maintain The Middle East Conflicts Wall Memorial, a tribute to U.S. military who have died during the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

In this unlikely site, just off Interstate 80 about 75 miles southwest of Chicago, the rush of the river provides a soothing backdrop to the memorial’s polished granite walls inscribed with 7,444 names.

The idea to construct the memorial started with members of the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run who had initially planned to honor one casualty -- Marine Capt. Ryan Beaupre from St. Anne, Ill., who died in 2003, said Linda Rose, secretary of the Freedom Run. But after the group delivered that monument to his hometown, they felt they hadn’t done enough. So they set about building a memorial to honor all of the heroes from all of the hometowns from across the nation who died in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf War.

Airman Bradley Smith has a road named in his honor in Troy, Ill.
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon
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Airman Bradley Smith has a road named in his honor in Troy, Ill.

The memorial, which was dedicated in 2004, also includes the names of soldiers who died before Desert Storm, including 241 U.S. service members killed in 1983 in the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Every June, the names of the previous year’s casualties are added at a ceremony that is attended by Gold Star families from across the U.S.

This year -- on June 15 -- another 223 names will be added, said Rose who has the sobering task of updating the list using notifications from the Department of Defense.

Rose noted that the wall has been funded totally by donations. Material, including the granite, was donated, and labor was provided by volunteers, including local labor unions. Marseilles, a town of 5,000, provided the riverfront location, and the city engineer helped with the design.

The week before Memorial Day, Iraq veteran Matt Farrare, 32, of nearby Streator, Ill., was among the volunteers doing repair work at the memorial. In April, the Illinois River rose from its banks at the nearby Marseilles Dam and severely damaged several hundred homes in the little town.

Damage to the memorial was minimal, and Farrare and his fellow volunteers agree on the reason. The spirits of 7,444 soldiers held that wall, they say.

For Farrare, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, the memorial has personal meaning; it includes the names of six soldiers that he served with. He thinks of them whenever he is at the site.

"Every time I’m here, they’re here,’’ Farrare said. “If I’m working here, they’re working right beside me.''

"It’s about not being forgotten”

Five years have passed since Andy Habsieger was killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad. He was one of four soldiers who died in the attack during a weekend that marked the 4,000th U.S. military casualty in Iraq.

Brenda Habsieger said her son’s friends have been a godsend. They’ve held fundraisers to pay for a scholarship in his honor, and they’re hoping to raise enough money to build a playground at his memorial park in Festus.

In July, a Heroes Way road sign will be erected on Interstate 55 in his honor. On that same day, a sign will be dedicated to Army Staff Sgt. James Ide, a graduate of De Soto High School who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. Ide’s family held a fundraiser that raised enough money for both signs.

"It’s about not being forgotten,’’ Habsieger said. "The mother of a soldier who was killed before Andy told us that it’s a parent’s greatest fear -- that their kid will be forgotten.”

Habsieger said she has kept every token that anyone has sent to her in tribute to her son -- every card, every letter. The memorials, particularly the scholarship, mean a lot to her. She asks only that people not tell her their political views of the war.

"Whether you believed in the war or you didn’t, freedom isn’t free,” she said. "When people approach a parent of a fallen, don’t give your political views. Don’t tell me that you believed in the war or that they shouldn’t have been there, or whatever. Because that doesn’t change anything. I’d rather hear you just say that you respected the soldiers. You respect those guys for what they do.”

Habsieger hopes that Americans will continue to support funding for veterans programs. She said the soldiers who served with her son in Iraq have grappled with his death. 

"These young men hurt,” she said. "I don’t think people realize what it does -- not just to the families -- but to their brothers in arms. We cannot forget them.”

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