About 200 people gathered on a cold but sunny Friday afternoon to celebrate a special addition to the Illinois Fallen Soldiers Tree Memorial at Illini State Park.
The Surround of Honor, which consists of steel panels arranged in a circle and bearing engraved bricks with the name, service branch and hometown of every fallen soldier in Illinois, was dedicated Friday by local and state officials. Members of the public and families of military service members attended the ceremony as well.
The Surround of Honor is the latest expansion to the Illinois Fallen Soldiers Tree Memorial, which hosts 250 oak trees planted in honor of fallen Illinois soldiers in the Middle East.
Scott and Christine Laible, of Henry, said they attended the event for a couple of reasons. Their son, Thomas, was part of the volunteer group of students from Illinois Valley Community College who worked on a 700-pound steel sculpture of a soldier kneeling toward the boots and gun of a fallen soldier. The sculpture was installed this week at the Surround of Honor.
“We're very proud of him and the whole group who worked hard to make sure the sculpture was here on time,” Scott said. “We also wanted to be here so we could help support all of our soldiers, both the fallen and the ones who have come home. It's important to thank them every chance we get for their sacrifices that make our country what it is.”
Phil Horth works in Ottawa and wanted to be at the event.
“I'm the commander of the Mendota American Legion,” Horth said. “I heard about this ceremony and wanted to be here to help honor our veterans. It's important to recognize and remember the sacrifices that have been made by both our veterans and their families.”
Steve Massey, president of the Illini State Park Foundation that started the Illinois Fallen Soldier Memorial, said the site is meant to serve as a place to reflect on military members who died while serving in the Middle East. The memorial was dedicated 10 years ago, on Nov. 10, 2009.
“So many people stopped by to not only reflect on their loved ones but to leave little mementos by the trees,” Massey said. “So, we knew we had to think about adding to this memorial because it meant so much to so many.”
Throughout the years, the memorial expanded from the 250 oak trees to include a 7-ton natural granite memorial stone, a 33-foot flagpole with solar lighting and service medallions, created by Ron Dickerson of Illinois Valley Cellular.
“We're a small foundation — we have five people involved,” Massey said. “But honestly, I can't thank everyone enough and there are so many to be thankful for. David Raikes (Laborers Local 393) helped get the project started. We couldn't have even started this project if it wasn't for his expertise in coordinating everyone to work together. Between the materials, the labor, the money donated and everything else that went into the creation of this memorial, I'd say we've got $100,000 invested. And now, we have the Surround of Honor and the sculpture created by the very talented students at IVCC.”
State and local officials attended Friday’s sculpture installation. Among them was Linda Chapa LaVia, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.
“Our veterans wrote our country a blank check, knowing there was a possibility that their sacrifice could be the ultimate one, paid not only by them but by their families,” she told the crowd. “We must never forget them, we must always thank them for their service. It's why we now enjoy the freedoms in the greatest country in the world.”
State Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, expressed his gratitude to military members as well.
“We are committed to helping our veterans and our Gold Star Families,” Yednock said. “This memorial provides a quiet and safe place for them to gather and reflect. I will always be grateful for the sacrifices they have made to make our lives better. Thank you all, from the bottom of my heart.”
Army National Guard Capt. Paul McConkey, who served three deployments in Afghanistan and Kuwait and was awarded the Bronze Star, said it is important to remember servicemen and women who have given their lives, as well as their families.
“The Illinois National Guard has 600 soldiers deployed. It's estimated that in 2020, we will have 900 Illinois National Guard deployed to Africa, Iraq, Kuwait and even Ukraine. There have been 20,000 deployed since 9/11. So you can see, there is so much more to do when it comes to fighting terrorism,” McConkey said.
“But one thing we must all do is remember our fallen brothers and sisters,” he continued. “And it's not just our fallen heroes we need to remember. We also need to thank and help our Gold Star Families. I know many of the names on these bricks, just like many of you do. And we must never forget that their families have also made the ultimate sacrifice. We live in the greatest country on earth and it's because of our veterans.”
“It was a fitting tribute to our fallen,” said Marseilles Mayor Jim Hollenbeck said. “... All of these oak trees, the Surround of Honor and the sculpture just make this a wonderful tribute to our veterans.”