Freedom Rock: Veterans Memorial Times Ten
Thanks to one inspired teenager and the man he's become, a granite boulder in Iowa draws survivors together in grief, pride, and remembrance of fallen veterans.
Ray "Bubba" Sorenson's Freedom Rock, 2003, featured firefighters at the World Trade Center and Washington Crossing the Delaware
Photo: Sorenson Family via Class Brain
The 12-foot boulder isn't going anywhere. In fact nobody seems to know when or how a chunk of granite weighing 56 tons made it from the Schillberg Rock Quarry out to a spot next to Highway 25. What they do know is that the rock is magnetic now. It draws people by the thousands to this lonely place in Central Iowa each year.
Grieving friends, veterans of the Korean War, curiosity seekers, bikers from California, and tourists from Sweden — they come by the ones and fives and, on Memorial Day, by the hundreds, to stand at Freedom Rock.
This year is the 10th anniversary of Ray (Bubba) Sorensen's patriotic tribute on the prairie. For the last decade, he's painted the huge boulder that was once a teen graffiti catcher, wrapping it with thanks to U.S. servicemen and women.
Freedom Rock 2000, by Ray "Bubba" Sorenson, showing the Vietnam Memorial at cherry blossom time in Washington, DC
Photo: Ray Sorenson
Sorenson was raised in nearby Fontanelle, Iowa. In 1999, when he was a 19 year old college student, Ray saw the film "Saving Private Ryan." Feeling then "that patriotism was at an all time low and was not being taught in our schools," he decided to turn the big rock out on the highway into an artistic and political statement.
19-year-old Ray Sorenson and his original Freedom Rock, in 1999
Adair County, Iowa
Photo: Ray Sorenson
His first painting was a rendering of Joe Rosenthal's photographic icon: six soldiers raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. Sorenson added "THANK YOU VETERANS FOR OUR FREEDOM." That same message has been conveyed more imaginatively with each passing year. Sorenson has incorporated Uncle Sam and helicopters, army medics and an immense eagle into his design. In 2005 Freedom Rock honored the ethnic minorities who, in the face of discrimination, fought and died under the U.S. flag. Sorenson's image of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, painted in 2000, shows a mournful man pressing his hand against a name on "the wall," as a figure in green battle fatigues stands within the black monument, pressing his own hand forward. They touch.
Sorenson studied art and graphic design at Des Moines Area Community College, then at Iowa State. He and his wife now live in Ames, where he works in graphic design and hopes to gain more commissions as a muralist. He devotes most of May each year to sketching and carrying out a new painting on Freedom Rock. One year when a group asked if they might scatter the ashes of eight Vietnam veterans here, Sorenson came up with another idea. He offered to add the ashes to his green paint and set the soldiers 'remains directly onto the giant stone.
Photo: Ray Sorenson
Sorenson takes pains to include all branches of the service in his tribute. He includes imagery as current day as Iraq, and as long past as the American Revolution. One year he rendered a version of Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware near the base of the rock.
Visitors young and old learn about U.S. military history at Freedom Rock, outside Greenfield, Iowa. Here's Ray Sorenson's mural of 2007.
Photo: Courtesy of Candy Sorenson
The teenager moved by a Hollywood film has grown up. "I've always been patriotic," Sorenson told NBC News in an interview two years ago, "I don't think I could be any more patriotic. But…I've grown to know a lot more about history, a lot more of our men and women's sacrifices, like, not only currently. I'm reading books about the past and how this country was formed. So I guess I'm a lot more knowledgeable on the subject now."
For more on Bubba Sorenson's veterans memorial, including a map, here's his website. The dedication service for Freedom Rock 2008 was held Sunday at 1 pm. Visitors are always welcome. The monument is about 45 west of Des Moines. Take Interstate 80 W; turn south on Highway 25 toward Greenfield. The boulder is on the east side of the highway, a few miles south of the Interstate.