Florida monument honors all vets who served in wartime in Iraq

Cape Coral, Fla., claims to have the first monument (not memorial) that honors veterans from both Iraq wars: Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003-2011, and Gulf Storm 1991.

The town has a penchant for honoring veterans. Four Mile Cove Eco Park, where the monument stands, actually has four others honoring veterans of different wars. Iraqi Freedom Army veteran Michelle Rosenberger said it's the only park to have five monuments honoring vets from different wars.

Rosenberger served on the committee to see the project through.

"The fallen are appreciated, but there was nothing honoring everybody so that’s our way of giving that to us and to them," she said.

Former Cape Coral Mayor John Sullivan pushed for the monument, and area public schools had a contest to design it. Then-eighth grader Xavier Pinero drew the winning idea: a star inscribed with the phrase Iraq War Heroes.

Rosenberger said though Pinero chose to represent the veterans with a star, he didn't realize the symbol's significance to the military - from the stars on the American flag to the blue-, silver-, and gold-star families.

In this vein, gold and silver dog tags are placed on the profile of the star honoring Iraq veterans, especially those KIA. The five branches of the military that served in the two wars are represented on wooden posts.

Dog tags will continue to be added, and Rosenberger said eventually they would like to add a plaque with Pinero's name as well.

Ground was broken on the project in July 2013, the day after committee member and Iraq War veteran Staff Sgt. Karl Nawkson died of cancer. Donations fueled construction. The monument was dedicated on Veterans Day that November.

The dedication ceremony included speeches honoring the veterans, a reading of names and a special celebrity guest: Mickey Thomas, the lead singer of Starship.

Rosenberger said she saw Thomas would be in town for another event, and reached out. She said she was surprised to receive an enthusiastic response. Thomas wanted to perform at the dedication ceremony to honor the Iraqi veterans and to honor his father, who was a World War II veteran.

He performed "God Bless America." (Watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mKfj1aPLbBg.)

"It was a pretty cool gesture by him and his wife to stay an extra day and to do this for us veterans," Rosenberger said.

When Rosenberger looks at the monument, she sees part of the past. She lost her best friend from high school, Sgt. Eugene Williams, and friend Sgt. Darrin K. Potter in Iraq. Visiting allows her to reflect.

"It's my time to give back to them and ... to honor them and their families," Rosenberger said. She hopes the monument will encourage other visitors "to honor us, as the design contest winner calls us, our Iraq War heroes - honor and support us whether we agree with the war or not."

The site remains active, and held a ceremony commemorating the 11th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in March. She said a Memorial Day event at the monument with guest speakers who will honor fallen Iraqi War vets is already in the works.