Wisconsinites Honor Fallen Soldiers, Veterans From Middle East Wars

Weeklong Event Highlights Veterans' Struggles After Returning Home

J.R. Nichols stands beside his 120-foot long Wall of Remembrance
Glen Moberg/WPR

The Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville has wrapped up Operation Persian Gulf Welcome Home, a week-long tribute to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. The event honored those who gave their lives, and comforted those who still carry the scars of war.

Each night, veterans formed a line, saluted, and shouted “present” as the names were read of the Wisconsin servicemen and women who lost their lives in the region’s conflicts.

Charles Kaufman was killed by a roadside bomb at the age of 20 on June 26, 2005.

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“He just had a great smile,” recalled his mother, Celeste Kaufman. “I’ve been told he was killed instantly, and I take comfort in that, because I never wanted him to suffer.

Kaufman is now a volunteer at the Highground.

“The veterans of past, present and future are never forgotten here,” she said. “Their families and friends are never forgotten here.”

It was almost 10 years to the day since Iraq veteran and keynote speaker Brian Jopek last talked to his son Ryan, who had followed him overseas.

“He’d turned 20 on June 1 of 2006,” Jopek remembered. “His unit was only going to be in the country a couple of weeks. They came home, I think it was two days after he was buried, and I was at Volk Field to greet them. I just felt I had to be there.”

Jopek said he had been called a “baby killer” while in uniform on State Street in Madison. He said at the Highground, his son’s sacrifice and his own service are respected.

Jopek pointed to a scene from the movie, “The Hurt Locker,” which showed the internal struggle combat veterans can face when they return home.

“One minute, you’re in Iraq, you’re getting shot at,” he said, “and the next minute you’re in the cereal aisle, looking at a box of cereal for your kids. I can’t help but think that there have been so many that have had to deal with that.”

The event featured a 120-foot “Wall of Remembrance” which contained the names of all those killed in the global War on Terror, according to J.R. Nichols, who designed and built it in southern California.

Nichols, a civilian, said it was his way of thanking servicemembers who gave their lives, and to draw attention to those said to be “missing in America”: veterans suffering from depression and post-traumatic stress.

“There are 22 suicides a day,” he said. “We’re not taking care of their hidden wounds. we’re not helping them.”

“The Thinker” sculpture by artist Michael Martino. Glen Moberg/WPR

It was a common theme at the event. In a walk-through monument created to look like a giant boot print, there is a statue called “The Thinker” that depicts a serviceman staring into space.

“It could be PTSD, it could be just bad memories, it could be lost friends, it could be family issues, it could be not having a job, all of those things that a vet has to deal with. The 1,000-mile stare,” said sculptor Michael Martino.

The Highground’s Volunteer General, Kirk Rodman, served when Eisenhower was president. At 82, he said he is helping troubled veterans, and trying to reach the next generation of soldiers.

“We talk to a lot of kids,” Rodman said. “And my goal is to touch that one kid so when he has to push the button, he won’t do it.”

As the last name was read, a veteran shouted, “All present and accounted for, sir!” This past week at the Highground, that included Persian Gulf veterans who were only there in spirit.

Editor’s note: Wisconsin Public Radio was a sponsor for Operation Persian Gulf Welcome Home.