I’m so glad there’s a place that holds these soldiers in reverence.— Veteran Joseph Combs
Twice deployed Tennessee Army National Guard veteran Joseph Combs gets choked up when he thinks about his 13- and 11-year-old daughters having a place they can visit that honors his generation of veterans.
Combs was one of about a dozen Nashville, Tennessee-area veterans who traveled with the nonprofit Waypoint Vets to the Middle East Conflicts Wall in Marseilles, visiting the wall for the first time Saturday morning and conducting a candlelight vigil at sunset Saturday.
Combs said he wasn’t aware of a memorial to Middle East Conflict veterans, until he heard about the Waypoint Vets’ planned trip.
“This tells our story,” Combs said.
During the candlelight vigil at the Marseilles memorial, Combs was just one of the veterans that spoke beside an empty chair draped with the American flag. Many of them shared memories of friends lost and talked about collecting etchings of the names from the wall of those they knew, or those their friends knew.
When he spoke, Combs displayed a photo from his cellphone of Anthony Seig, who died in combat a week from his 20th birthday.
Combs said he wasn’t able to attend Seig’s funeral, but he’s grateful he’s able to visit a place where Seig is honored.
“This is a beautiful place and it was so respectfully put together,” Combs said. “I’m so glad there’s a place that holds these soldiers in reverence. It’s a place of honor.”
U.S. Army Iraqi War veteran Sarah Lee, who founded Waypoint Vets, a group created to unite and empower veterans through activities and adventures, said she first visited the Middle East Conflicts Wall about four years ago following a coast-to-coast bicycle ride to bring awareness to veteran issues. She saw the sign from Interstate 80 and followed instructions to the parking lot along the Illinois River where the memorial is located.
“There was no one here,” she said, noting the sound of the Illinois River created a peacefulness. “Seeing all the names, and finding the names of the fallen, I knew I wanted to bring back other veterans to see this.”
She organized Saturday’s trip, with help from the Illinois Motorcycle Freedom Run and Marseilles Commissioner Jim Buckingham. The veterans also visited Starved Rock State Park and were treated to a dinner at the Marseilles American Legion. Many of the veterans were unaware a memorial existed for fallen Middle East Conflicts veterans.
“It was extremely powerful,” Lee said. “This was an opportunity for them to see their friends names in a memorial and bring back the etchings, and take some of it back with them.”
Lee said the Middle East Conflicts Wall is her generation’s Vietnam Wall, admitting she was overwhelmed with thoughts from the visit.
Combs said the setting puts the names of the fallen in a different light.
While each of the more than 8,000 deaths are sad, seeing the names on something other than a gravestone, tells more of the story, he said.
“It presents them with honor,” Combs said. “You can come out here and tell stories, and share memories, and you are sad too, but there’s also the reverence.”
Combs assured everyone he would be back. While several of the veterans on the trip collected etchings for friends and family, Combs said he wasn’t bringing any back for anyone else.
“I’m going to make them come here,” he said. “I want to bring them here, because this is really amazing.”