McConnell Airmen assist in Operation Freedom Memorial

22nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Story by Staff Sgt. Jessica Lockoski

Date: 05.20.2014
Posted: 05.20.2014 19:02
News ID: 130560
McConnell Airmen assist in Operation Freedom Memorial

WICHITA, Kan. - It’s often said, “the best things in life come to those who wait.” After almost six years of waiting, Kansas gold star families and fellow statesmen have a peaceful place to pay tribute to their fallen service members.

Two contributing Air Force pilots helped unveil the new Operation Freedom Memorial during a ceremony at the Veteran’s Memorial Park, May 17, in Wichita, Kansas.

Capt. Nick Williams, formerly stationed here, and Capt. Seth Ehrlich from the 349th Air Refueling Squadron here, were reunited with Anita Dixon, a Kansas gold star mother who headed the non-profit foundation and memorial project she created after losing her son, U.S. Army Sgt. Evan Parker.

Parker died in 2005 from wounds suffered while deployed in Iraq. His name is now reflected on the memorial’s black granite walls alongside more than 90 other Kansas service members who have sacrificed their lives from Operation Desert Storm to current, ongoing conflicts.

“Your loved ones will always be remembered,” said Dixson to the hundreds of attendees at the dedication ceremony, dozens of whom were gold star family members.

The memorial is located along a walking path on the East Arkansas River among several other monuments.

Williams, Ehrlich and other Airmen from McConnell participated in fundraising efforts for the OFM.

Williams, a native of Charlotte, North Carolina, said the monuments captivated him the first time he ran through the area. When Dixson’s invitation for interested volunteers for the OFM foundation was sent across the base in 2010, it was an easy decision.

“I feel like she’s adopted me as a son, trusted my opinion on the OFM committee, and the product of us working together was better than if we had worked separately,” he said.

In addition of donations from many local organizations the past few years, the cost was of the monument was cut from $300,000 to $133,000.

Williams’ avid passion for running, which initially led him through the park to view the monuments, also raised more than $7,000 for the project.

After gaining attention and support from his friends and family while training for and running in the 2012 Boston Marathon, he wanted to use that limelight to help Dixson’s fundraising efforts.

“I thought, ‘Maybe I can marry this attention with this project,’” he said.

Instead of asking for donations of a dollar per every mile he ran during a single event, he asked for cents on the mile the entire time he trained for his next marathon.

He collected pledges for five, 10 and 25 cents per mile. Over a span of seven months, between deployment readiness training and temporary assignments, it added up.

A thought-provoking parallel for Williams while working with the OFM project was his change in duty station to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, home of the Department of Defense Port Mortuary. There, he took part in a dignified transfer of a fallen service member who was aboard the C-5 Galaxy aircraft he now flies.

Williams said the privilege to fly a fallen Marine home was the moment that crystallized why he’d been supporting OFM and the importance it brought to family members.

“This tough, new reality belongs most personally to the family, but it also belongs to all of us,“ he said. “It is our responsibility as countrymen and neighbors to support, honor and remember this sacrifice.”

Williams said when it came to surveying various memorials in the U.S., most are constructed after the conflict ends, when participants have made their way back into society.

“Once decades have passed, they are then in a position to gather and construct a memorial commemorating their experiences,” he added.

“Kansas didn’t do that. Kansas started a project in the midst of the battle so that soldiers returning home would have a place to grieve, a place to contemplate, and a place to heal. The significance of this sanctuary cannot be understated.”