Standing in front of a small crowd, lit by a smoke-tinged sunset, author and Gold Star spouse Brooke Jenkins Walters urged the audience to honor soldiers’ sacrifices by living life as fully as possible.
“Everybody has a story, I have a story, you have a story,” she said. “And the question really, that I would invite you to ask yourself, is what is it that you’re going to do with your story? How are you going to let your experience change you and affect you for the better? Because I’ve learned that no experience, no matter how ugly, difficult and crazy it is, is ever wasted.”
Her backdrop was a 360 ft.-long replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, currently in Cache Valley as a part of the traveling Cost of Freedom tribute honoring fallen service members in U.S. military conflicts.
Remembering stories of loved ones lost and not letting life slip by were the dominant themes at the opening ceremony for the tribute, conducted Thursday evening at Elk Ridge Park in North Logan, the temporary site of the memorial replica.
“Grief is a worthy price for the love we experience,” Walters said. “Vulnerability and sacrifice are always worth it for the people that we love, even at the risk of that grief. In fact, that grief is a gift, it’s a reminder of the love that we had.”
The Cost of Freedom tribute was brought to Logan by the Cache Valley Veterans Association to accompany the Michael J. Allred Ride for the Fallen, a memorial motorcycle ride honoring soldiers who lost their lives since 9/11. The Saturday morning ride is a round trip up into Idaho, looping back past Bear Lake, and returning through Logan Canyon.
CVVA extended the weekend around the 120-mile ride over four days, featuring events like a benefit concert, a tribute to first responders, and more.
Entry fees from the ride and other donations throughout the event will help benefit the recently opened Dan Gyllenskog Veterans Resource Center in North Logan, which serves veterans throughout Northern Utah, as well as parts of Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho.
Accompanying the replica and conflict-specific signboards were boots from Operation Hero representing the over 300 Utah soldiers who have died in uniform during the now nearly 20 years since Sept. 11, 2001.
“It’s important that people know about all of our service members and their stories,” said Operation Hero founder and president Antionette Stapley at the ceremony. “Every family has an amazing story, so what we ask is when you see someone wearing a Gold Star pin, or has a Gold Star on their license plate, you may want to stop them and learn about their story — because they are so willing to talk about their loved one.”
The tribute first visited Cache Valley in 2011 and was escorted into the valley again on Wednesday by motorcycle convoy and first responders. It runs through Sunday, closing with a non-denominational church service at the site. Until then it’s open 24/7 and lit at night.
“This is an opportunity for those of us that haven’t had as personal a loss as some of the families here to be able to appreciate that,” said Operation Hero board member Scott Bodily at the event. “And for those that have had that loss to be able to visit that again and to feel that part of being alive that is loving someone and appreciating them.”
The replica contains the 58,253 names of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam and runs around 80% of the size of the original. Soldiers from other conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and others, as well as the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, were honored with memorial signs at the event.
The original memorial, located in Washington, D.C., is made of black granite embedded into the surrounding landscape, stretching over 493 ft. While initially controversial in part for its stark design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has since become an iconic representation of the scarring cost of war.
The proximity of the ceremony to the 20th anniversary of 9/11, as well as its timing amid the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, was not lost on the speakers.
“I think that (the situation in Afghanistan) is pretty hard for a lot of us to reconcile, but … it’s not about the politics, it’s not about what comes out in the news story, it was the connections that those individuals make. That will continue to live on,” Bodily said. “We see stuff in the news that isn’t very rewarding, but those rewards already exist, they can’t be undone on that personal level.”
Walters briefly reflected on this as she recounted how an online comment about her husband’s death — “another wasted life” — affected her.
“I didn’t know anything about military strategy, or even all of the reasons I sent my husband to Afghanistan. But I thought, ‘If it was wasted, then what’s the point?’” she said. “I would be lying that some of those same feelings haven’t resurfaced over the last week or two. The question that I have to ask myself: ‘Was it wasted?’
“And as I mulled that over, I made a decision to myself, that no matter what was going on over there, that his death would not be wasted, that my life would be different because of the experience of being a Gold Star wife. That it would not be wasted for me.”