The Cost of Freedom
By DYANN ESPINOSA / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
As we go about our comfortable lives, surrounded by the beauty of Sonoma County, most of us don’t think twice about the Americans who slogged through the swampy minefields of Vietnam and Cambodia, or have endured the searing heat of a desert in Afghanistan or Iraq.
These men and women are still making sacrifices every day, and those who survive are coming home with deep and enduring physical and emotional wounds.
To recognize and honor the fallen and their families, Sonoma native Dan Parker has helped establish a joyous occasion where all can be appreciated for their service.
Parker joined the Navy Reserve Sea Bees in 1989 and was called up to serve in the Philippines, building air strips and advance bases. Now commander of VFW Post 1943, he believed it was possible to help families and friends pay tribute to their loved ones and share in the joy of remembrance.
Starting Wednesday, Nov. 7, people will have their chance as Sonoma mounts a four-day event leading up to Veterans’ Day, hosting an 80 percent scale replica of The Wall at the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building.
“Most ceremonies are somber and don’t give the families or survivors a way to process their grief and have a positive, healing experience,” said Parker. “We created ‘The Cost of Freedom Tribute’ to provide people — especially veterans — ways to cope and a variety of resources.” The goal is to bring civilians and military personnel together and offer veterans pathways back to productive lives.
During the long weekend, the tribute will include a job fair for veterans, round-the-clock professional counseling, a computer locator that will find someone’s name on The Wall and daily ceremonies during which the public can recognize veterans’ contributions to our country.
In 2011, Parker and the VFW Post began planning and raising money for the event. A surprise $20,000 donation from Sonoma residents Frank and Arlene Keesling covered the cost of the traveling wall, so the VFW expanded the scope of the event.
The Wall has strong personal connections for Doug McKesson. He achieved the rank of Sergeant in the Marine Corps, serving in Vietnam from 1966 to 1967 in what was known as “Mike’s Battalion,” one of the companies in the forefront of the fighting. He has visited the Vietnam Veteran’s Wall in Washington D.C., where he found the names of more than 100 of the Marine he served with in the 3rd Battalion.
McKesson went on to serve on the city council and as Mayor of Sonoma. His memories of war are still vivid, and he regards “The Cost of Freedom” as “…a positive way to remind people that there were real people who died defending their country, not just names on a wall.”
The scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Wall contains all 58,000 names of the fallen. Other part of the tribute include the Gold Tag KIA Wall, a salute to all those in uniform who died since 9/11 in global wars, and numerous other displays and equipment used in these conflicts.
Ceremonies will recognize women veterans and “first responders,” including 9/11 law enforcement and firefighters. A special candlelight vigil will be held at The Wall on Saturday evening.
For Parker, “The Cost of Freedom” is a significant step in the evolution of the VFW and its membership.
“The days of the VFW being an ‘old boy’s club’ are over,” he said. “Today, there is a new generation of soldiers, both men and women, who need to take their place in our organization.”
Parker sees this event as a more inclusive gathering, “…one that unites veterans of all wars through their common bond and puts a human face on the distant wars that most civilians don’t understand. It’s a chance for all of us to honor, respect and remember those who serve their country.”
The Wall will arrive at Sears Point on Wednesday, Nov. 7, and at 3 p.m. will be escorted from the Sonoma Raceway to the Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Building, 126 First St. W. It will be accessible around the clock until Sunday evening, Nov. 11.