‘A stronghold of memory’

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In full dress uniform, Mojave High School Junior ROTC cadet Hannah Sanchez moves from statue to statue, across time and space, absorbing a legacy she intends to join one day. She looks into the sculpted faces of warriors throughout history – soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen – and envisions a future she sees for herself in the U.S. Air Force. In their expressions and postures, she senses that no matter the era, something similar binds all who have served America in uniform since the Revolutionary War.

“It’s amazing to see so many veterans in one place,” she explained after posing for a photo in front of a 7 1/2-foot Vietnam War M60 gunner cast in aluminum magnesium alloy, one of 18 figures unveiled and dedicated Friday at the $2.2 million Las Vegas Veterans Memorial: A National Tribute on a 2-acre plaza at the Grant Sawyer State Building. “It really touches my heart,” adds the ninth-grader who finished first in her JROTC class of 500. “It’s incredible. Coming here, it really makes you realize the level of service these guys put into it. It almost makes you tear up.”

The sculptor was Douwe Blumberg of Kentucky, son of a World War II veteran and grandson of a Holocaust victim, who also sculpted the “America’s Response” monument that now stands at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City to commemorate Special Forces troops who fought on horseback in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11.

“There is a sense that this is hallowed ground,” Blumberg said of the Las Vegas project, explaining that it is a tribute to all American military sacrifice through history, not just one specific battle or aspect of war, a daunting concept that he says he first sketched on a napkin.

The Las Vegas memorial needed to “be treated with a reverence not only to show respect but to communicate respect,” Blumberg said. “I wanted this to be more of an experience. You walk in, and you’re surrounded. You’re surrounded by time. You’re surrounded by history. You’re surrounded by experiences.”

Of all the figures at the memorial, a bronze-cast family waiting for their loved one to come home affects Sanchez the most. “My brother is a Marine,” she said softly. “He was wounded in Iraq. We went through a lot. It’s really the (family) support that’s been getting him through these couple of years. It’s not only the person who goes to war that’s sacrificing. The family is sacrificing the same amount, if not more.”

That also rang true for other memorial visitors.

“As a vet, I know the burden my family felt when I was deployed,” said Scott Tiano, a Marine Corps veteran and Las Vegas Veterans Memorial executive director. “Without the support of family, it makes deployment much more difficult for servicemembers. And when servicemembers get out, they might need long-term care. They need family to support them years after they deploy.”

“When you start at one end and work your way up and finally end up here, with the family support (statues), it kind of makes you proud of all we have accomplished,” American Legion National Vice Commander George Cushing said after walking among silvery warriors from the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War and the Gulf War. “This is a great representation of what the veterans community is all about. All the great things that have happened to allow us to live in a country where people have died and fought hard for this great nation of ours.”

One concept Blumberg hoped to convey in the memorial was not lost on Sanchez or Cushing: the common bond of military service, regardless of time period. “We’re all the same,” Cushing said. “A veteran is a veteran. There’s no difference if you’re wearing the Civil War uniform or you’re wearing the flight suit of a pilot. We all have a common bond. We’re all veterans, believing in the cause. It takes all branches and all units working together to accomplish the mission. That’s kind of the bottom line.”

American Legion District 2 Commander Joel M. Forman, a member of Las Vegas Post 76, says he is extremely grateful that such a memorial site is now in Nevada where nearly 300,000 U.S. military veterans reside. “This is one of the most veteran-friendly states in the union,” he explained. “To see something like this, it means quite a lot to a lot of us. To come out and watch this work in progress over the past six or eight months has been very heartwarming. And to finally see it completed is very emotional. I know other people here with ties to the veterans community are feeling the same way.”

One such attendee at the ceremony was Cathy Navin of Las Vegas, whose fiancé lost his life in the Vietnam War. “I am here on behalf of him, and all the veterans,” she explained. “I just am speechless. It’s just so beautiful. This is God’s work. It’s awesome. It’s for generations. When I first came to the site when they were building it, I just cried. It is such a noble undertaking.”

American Legion Department of Nevada Commander Dave Evans – a Vietnam War Navy corpsman who served 26 years in the U.S. Armed Forces and whose father was a veteran of World War II, the Korean War and an early adviser in the Vietnam War – says he appreciates the fact that the figures have real faces filled with emotions that don’t ordinarily appear in military monuments. “It makes it more human,” Evans said. “For those of us who have been there, done that, we wonder, what was it like then? We were too busy to look at each other and say, ‘I’m going to collect this moment for posterity.’ This more than does that. But the other thing is that the human element seems to tie all the generations together.”

After the speakers – led by Gov. Brian Sandoval – delivered remarks and expressed gratitude to veterans and their families in attendance, the centerpiece of the monument was unveiled, a three-figure bronze depiction of a battlefield rescue mission performed by troops in the war on terrorism. After the unveiling, officials from the Las Vegas Veterans Memorial Foundation and American Shooters, Inc., ceremonially donated the memorial site to the state of Nevada. The entire project, which was commended in a resolution passed last fall by The American Legion National Executive Committee, was privately funded and accomplished through the foundation formed in 2009 by American Shooters owner Dan Starks.

“It’s not often that dreams become reality,” said Sandoval, surrounded by veterans and television cameras following the dedication. “For a small group of individuals to make this happen – the commission and artist who put their heart and soul into these statues – allows a grateful and appreciative state to show our love to our veterans.”

Evans agreed. “It means a lot to Nevada veterans,” he said. “It also needs to be bigger than Nevada. It needs to be recognized throughout the West, throughout the military, throughout the veterans groups around the country, and it needs to be brought forward from the standpoint that when you come to Las Vegas, this is one of the five things you need to do.”

“We’re so proud that they chose this area in Las Vegas, in Nevada, to do this, especially Memorial Day weekend,” Forman added, noting that the site is near Las Vegas American Legion Post 8 and Nevada Department Headquarters. “There’s no better place than this spot. We’re just proud that it’s here. It’s a beautiful day to welcome it.”

“It seems bigger than myself,” Blumberg said. “I’m amazed that I could be a part of this. I almost feel like it was created through me, not by me.”

There was immense support that helped bring the memorial to reality.

“We had great team, great support from businesses and individuals from around the state and around the country,” Tiano said. “We knew we would get there at some point. I’m just happy to finally be here. We are very pleased with how it turned out.”

“It is, without a doubt, worthy of those who have dedicated their lives in the name of freedom and country,” Sandoval said at the ceremony. “Here, we share their sorrows, are inspired by their courage and join in our love of country. Today, on this ground, we remember all those who we have lost, and those who have served our beloved United States of America.”

Describing the site as a “stronghold of memory appropriately carved from rock and forged from metal,” Sandoval added that “this will be a gathering place for the ages, a place for the generations to come, a place of respite and repose, memory and reflection, where stories can be remembered in silence or told with pride, as we humbly attempt to understand the dedication and sacrifice of the fighting soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who grace the pages of our history and live forever in our hearts.”