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Veterans Day Ceremony at Korean War Veterans Memorial on Nov. 11, 2011

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The tree of liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots.”

As I waited with about 120 people on Friday morning, Veterans’ Day, for the ceremony to begin at the Korean War Veterans Memorial at 119th and Lowell in Overland Park, I couldn’t believe that five years has passed since the dedication of this solemn monument. That day, Sept. 30, 2006, there had been no space on this ground as 1,000 people attended the ceremony, which began with two national anthems: the South Korean anthem sung by the Kansas City Korean Choir and the American anthem performed by the Greater Kansas City American Legion Band. Such dignitaries as former Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Richard B. Meyers, South Korean Consul Wook Kim from Chicago and U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore gave speeches.

The crowd on Friday was much smaller, but gathered for an equally important cause: to remember those who never returned from war to their beloved home state of Kansas. At 10 a.m., Tom Stevens, the sixth president of the 11-year-old Korean War Veterans Association Chapter #181, welcomed everyone bundled in winter coats and shivering against the cold breeze.

The keynote speaker, retired Maj. Gen. Fred D. Robinson Jr., was complimentary toward the veterans’ sacrifices in Korea six decades earlier. “I have admiration for all Korean veterans who fought in what was first known as the Korean ‘conflict’ then changed to a ‘war’ weeks later… Your strength and resilience set the new standards for today’s U.S. military. South Korea is an amazing country today.”

I, Korean, wanted to shout, “I’m their witness, General, during the war as well as last few years, while they “marched” together to bring the Memorial here, in Overland Park, to honor their fallen comrades. I was only 9 years old when the North Koreans stole everything from us — books, playground and classrooms, including our dreams, but the U.S. soldiers gave us reasons to hope for a better day. Besides fighting, they also fed beggars with their military rations and gave us kids the sweet taste of life — Hershey’s bars, Juicy Fruit, and M&Ms.”

It was late June 2004 when I was introduced at a Korean-American Ladies Foundation fund-raising luncheon to the veterans’ goal to build a memorial for 415 fallen Kansans. That day, Jack Krumme, the president at the time, announced that the association had $20,000 in the memorial fund. He said that in the next few years, we would be looking at the beautiful memorial with red granite walls bearing the names of those who fought in the war as well as those who supported the cause. It turned out we didn’t have to wait a few years.

Tom Stevens of the foundation explained in a recent conversation, “The Memorial is the result of the teamwork of the community as a whole. More than a hundred organizations and countless individuals sent contributions after the City Council of Overland Park approved our proposal to construct the memorial in June 2003.”

Stevens played multiple roles in making the veterans’ dream a reality. Besides serving as the first vice-president and the treasurer of the association, he was also the secretary of the 11-member memorial committee.

The ground-breaking ceremony was on Aug. 23, 2003. A few month later, at the Association's monthly meeting at Tomahawk Community Center, they had an unexpected visitor--the representative of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. "He was a pleasant-looking fellow," Stevens remembered. "He said apologetically that the Kauffman Foundation couldn’t grant the $5,000 we asked for because they give priorities to schools, libraries and performing arts communities. He then said, ‘The only thing we can do is to give you $45,000 more than you asked for: the $50,000 Leadership Award!’ We were speechless!”
A year later, in November 2004, another surprise came, this time from Washington. In response to proposals from U.S. Senators Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts and U.S. Rep. Dennis Moore, the Bush administration awarded the association $374,280 toward the construction of the memorial. This giant gift boosted the veterans’ team spirit beyond words.

“The grant was administered by HUD (the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development) in Washington,” Stevens said. “I read the necessary documents and talked to many people on the phone to find out how to draw down the funds, and then faxed the required papers to the appropriate people. More phone calls later, I’d learn that the documents I sent were lost in the pile of papers on the other end. It was a very slow, complicated procedure for an inexperienced person like me.”

Byron Loudon, a former Overland Park councilman and attorney, helped obtain 501(c)(3) status without charging a fee, and in May 2006, construction began. Four months later, on a beautiful autumn day, the memorial was dedicated on the solemn ground.

At the Korean War Veterans Memorial across the state line in Kansas City, vandals damaged concrete and a plaque.

“It’s most unfortunate,” Stevens said. “But it is less likely to happen here at our memorial. Shortly after the monument was erected, the Overland Park Police Department moved in next door, and their surveillance cameras are watching it day and night. The people at the city of Overland Park have been loyal to us, putting up signs for visitors, even providing a parking space for them, and meticulously maintaining the site as well. The loving attention we’ve been receiving from all areas of people and organizations is unbelievable.”

The inscription on the granite wall at the Memorial reads “FREEDOM IS NOT FREE!” Don’t we all have to pay a high price for such a precious gift as freedom?

Thomas Jefferson said, "The Tree of Liberty must be watered with the blood of patriots."