“In the midst of the uncertainties of war there is one certainty. That he will never be forgotten or abandoned.”
Jim Keller, 71, was a newlywed when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam with the 101st Airborne. He walked point for a year in 1969. All of the men he served with knew the war was unpopular, but he wasn’t prepared for what he experienced when he returned home.
“We came off the plane in our uniforms and people spit on us and shouted ‘baby killer.’ I put my uniform away and put the war out of my mind,” he said.
He restarted a career with the Hy-Vee Food store based in Chariton, Iowa, and rose to store manager, retiring after successful stints in Albia and his hometown of Chariton. After retirement, Keller threw himself into volunteer work in Albia, serving on the county conservation board, helping build a hitting and pitching facility at the community’s sports complex, and working tirelessly on rebuilding and improving the baseball and softball facility.
But there was an itch inside that had to do with his return from Vietnam, as well as being the son of a WWII veteran. About 15 years ago he traveled with a friend to hear well-known Vietnam veteran and POW Gerald Coffey and was greeted by Coffey with these words: “Thank you for serving your country, and welcome home soldier.”
A seed was planted. Keller wanted to create a monument to veterans of all eras with the express purpose of thanking them for their service and never having a single veteran feel unappreciated again.
Never an active member with The American Legion, Keller connected for the first time. He also opened up to other Vietnam-era vets in the community. He found people with the same yearning. He also found veterans from the Gulf wars, Korea, WWII and the Cold War who hadn’t been thanked or embraced by the community when they returned from the service.
Men and women who hadn’t served captured Keller’s dream, including Monroe County Supervisor the late Denny Ryan, a key figure in land acquisition for the monument.
The Welcome Home Soldier Committee was formed, an architect hired and a design presented to the community in 2004. Cost estimates were modest to begin with, the low six figures. But the dream of a statewide and nationwide monument to welcome all veterans back to their communities wouldn’t be contained.
The black granite wall (a wall similar to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.) started the fundraising with names of veterans inscribed on each panel. Roman crosses (the kind found at Arlington and military cemeteries in Normandy and around the world) were also purchased in honor of veterans. Humble Hero Hill, a place containing 100 flags, and the tribute to states amphitheater all helped with early funding.
To date, over $2 million has been raised as the monument moves toward completion. Mostly, money has come from numerous small donations. The Des Moines Chapter of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) fell in love with the project and donated $50,000. Korean War veteran Merrill Baker, a local farmer, gave a personal gift of $25,000.
A looping sidewalk was built first, followed by the black granite wall, then Humble Hero Hill and the 100 flags, then the amphitheater and state flags, the row of Roman crosses, the bell memorial (honoring Baker and Ryan) and then the largest project to date, the Iwo Jima statue was cast and set. A large parking lot was poured and paid for in the summer of 2018.
Battlefield crosses have arrived and are ready to be installed. This fall, the statue of the Civil War bugler will be joined by a replica of the Vietnam Memorial and its three soldiers, funded through an anonymous $500,000 gift.
The journey hasn’t been easy. Keller and his committee have discovered critics around every corner, although the vast majority have embraced the idea. That was no more evident than when the monument was attacked by an atheist group from Washington, D.C., that demanded the Roman crosses and anything remotely connected to religion be removed from the site, since the land had been leased from the county government.
Keller basically told the group to pound salt. The county board of supervisors held their ground. A law firm from Waco, Texas, specializing in defending First Amendment rights signed on to defend Welcome Home Soldier at no cost. A rally of over 3,000 people, including veterans groups from across the state, gathered at the monument to show support.
The battle, at least for now, was won.
Welcome Home Soldier isn’t simply a place for statues, crosses and flags. It eventually will be an interactive history lesson, with quotes from famous Americans regarding veterans on plaques around the park and other historical facts about American veterans explaining to visitors the theme of Welcome Home. “Our goal has always been to make it a history lesson,” said Keller. “We want to tear your heart out and hand it back to you.”
It is not unusual to come to the magnificently lighted monument at night and see people kneeling at a Roman cross or standing at the base of a flag on Humble Hero Hill, looking past the flag into the night’s sky. You’ll see people in the early morning, walking the winding sidewalk. You’ll see grandparents holding the hands of their grandchildren, talking to them about what each part of the monument means to them.
You will see men and women standing alone with tears running down their cheeks as they consider the message of Welcome Home Soldier. The first Memorial Day observance held at the Welcome Home Soldier Monument was the largest in decades in Albia. Hundreds of people crowded the site. As the program began, people looked up to see a bald eagle soaring above the monument. The crowd stood in hushed silence as the eagle floated above the crowd, dipped its wings and flew off out of sight.
The message was clear to everyone who gathered: “Welcome Home Soldier.”
For more information, go to the WHS website welcomehomesoldier.com, call Keller at 641-777-1663 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.