Radio show host and Air Force veteran Rick Crandall broadcasted his Memorial Day show in 2000 from the Normandy Cemetery at Omaha Beach to honor the fallen at the site. The message, spanning the Atlantic, sparked a discussion between Crandall and listeners back home in Colorado: How many fallen Coloradans, buried around the world, had visits from home?
"It just sat with me wrong ... nobody had been to see them. That was the seed, the start of the idea," Crandall said.
Crandall began to see if there was interest in building a memorial — sure, there were a few others, but none to all five branches, distinctly Coloradan in nature. Using The American Legion Department of Colorado as a headquarters, the ball started rolling.
Adjutant Pat Smith and Deputy Adjutant Tom Bock, along with military retirees and a historian, helped Crandall gather information.
"Really the Legion was involved at the onset as place for us to meet, as a place for us to talk, as a source for folks that were connected with the veterans community," Crandall said. "The Legion was the footing that we used to get further down the road. Without that base of support at the beginning, I'm not sure how far we would have gotten."
About six months after the Colorado Freedom Memorial Foundation was formed, they found designer Kristoffer Kenton. Crandall reached out, and Kenton said he would be back in touch with him after the holidays.
"The first thing he said was OK ‘I've designed the memorial,'" Crandall said. "I was a little bit like, ‘Sure you have.'"
But Kenton's thoughtful design struck a chord. Glass panels with the names of the KIA, in no particular order, signify the chaos of war. The top of the memorial is peaked to represent the Rockies and the leaning glass panels also represent the fallen.
"He opened up his drawing pad that he had, and there was the Colorado Freedom Memorial, exactly as it looks today. I knew the minute I saw it — that's our memorial ... Unanimously everybody loved it."
The project cost more than $700,000, which was collected through individual donations — no corporate sponsors. As interest would wane, Legionnaires and Sons of the American Legion would hold an event or hatch a plan to give fundraising the "shot in the arm" it needed, Crandall said.
"The only names that belong at the site of the Colorado Freedom Memorial are the names on the Colorado Freedom Memorial. I'm proud that we stuck to our guns. ... The end result is right," he said.
But this method took time — between 12 and 13 years to collect the necessary funds. The leaders agreed they didn't want to begin construction until all the money was raised, fearing a half-finished monument.
"Once we had the money, I insisted on speed," Crandall said.
Aurora, Colo., donated the land for the project, and ground was broken in February 2013. That Memorial Day, the completed memorial was dedicated.
More than 5,300 names appear on the monument, all Colorado KIA from the Spanish-American War until the present.
Since then, Crandall estimated between 500 and 1,000 visitors come to the site every month. For families whose loved ones are buried overseas, the memorial "almost becomes a gravesite," Crandall said. A flag pavilion near the glass flies its flags permanently at half-staff.
"The setting is really something you know. A lot of these types of memorials are built and located in downtown areas ... where state functions can happen. Where we built the Colorado Freedom Memorial out in Aurora it's just adjacent to Buckley Air Force Base, and every now and then F-16s come flying over the memorial ..."
"In the evening you can look just to the west of the memorial and see the sunset over the mountains, casting great light over the memorial. It is really a very special place," Crandall said.
This Memorial Day, a ceremony at the site will unveil a stone marker with additional names, which will honor veterans including Korean War veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Joe Baldanado. A searchable computer kiosk, with names and information about the veterans when possible, added in May, will be open.
"The next step for us is to try to really put stories to these names and to be able to have future generations to know who these heroes were and why they're important," Crandall said.