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The Freedom Defenders: Bemidji’s veterans memorial honors past and present military members

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The Freedom Defenders Veterans Memorial was dedicated in May 2006, but yet 13 years later, many in the region still don’t know it exists near the Beltrami County History Center.

The bricks with names of those who’ve served make up the Walk of Honor, surrounding six pillars representing the United States Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and Merchant Marines.

Additionally, as a centerpiece, the memorial includes a bronze statue of Charles “Chuck” Lindberg, a World War II Marine who helped raise the flag at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Lindberg was born in Grand Forks, N.D., but later settled in Minnesota and is buried at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.

Despite featuring so many aspects, though, the Freedom Defenders memorial has been overlooked.

“A common experience for all of us is we talk to people who don’t even know about the memorial,” said Gary Danielson, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and one of the volunteer managers for the memorial. “We want to tell our story so more people know about it. There are several people who are honoring friends and family members and we want to invite the community to see that and do the same.”

Those volunteers are assisted in caring for the memorial by the Pinewood Legion Auxiliary, who provide and care for the flowers at the site. There’s also the group Finishing Touch, which donates their time and work to install the paver bricks.

Each of the paver bricks costs $150 and the funds go back into the care of the memorial.

Fits with Depot

The memorial itself is at the end of Minnesota Avenue Southwest, adjacent to the Beltrami County History Center. A perfect fit according to Marine Corps veteran and volunteer Gabriel Wakonabo.

“Many who have their name on paver bricks at the memorial actually took train rides from the Bemidji depot to get to their point of induction into a military branch,” Wakonabo said. “So, it wasn’t uncommon to have a lot of community members at the depot. I think that’s one of the key tie-ins. They go hand-in-hand.”

With Memorial Day on Monday, volunteer caretakers of the memorial told the Pioneer what it means to them.

“I’m just grateful to those who developed the idea for a veterans memorial that could grow into something as large as this,” Danielson said. “I have a number of relatives’ names honored on the walk there. My dad, my brother and my brother-in-law. So, I’m grateful I can honor them.”

“For me, it’s showing a tribute to those who’ve gone before me and those who’ve gone with me and those who’ve yet to come,” Wakonabo said. “There’s the old saying ‘freedom isn’t free,’ so it’s fitting to have it be the Freedom Defenders.”

Kelly Booge, an Army National Guard veteran, said, “I see it as a way to honor our past veterans and those serving today. It’s a place for young people, too. To see what we, the veterans of the area, represent.”

“To me, I’m very proud of our nation’s flag,” Army veteran Bruce Malterud said. “And I like that you can go down there and see the flag waving and all of the branches represented.”

Marine Corps veteran Lee Coe said, “honoring the military is a big one for me and honoring our flag, too. That’s what it’s all about. When we go into combat, we’re usually carrying a flag with us.”

Kim Dague, who’s not a veteran but whose family served, volunteers to help at the memorial. He said, “when I go down there, I think of the sacrifice all these guys have done being away from home, and not knowing if they’re going to have a tomorrow when they’re out in the field. There’s so much history involved there.”

“We who’re still able to honor the veterans buried overseas and in this country should do so,” said Lester Johnson, an Army veteran. “I hope we can somehow honor all those who’re serving today, too.”

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