In one way or another, the United States has had a presence in the Persian Gulf region for the past 26 years. And so has the Wisconsin National Guard.
That presence was evident during a weeklong event at Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville, Wisconsin dedicating the Persian Gulf Tribute — a collection of concrete benches and jersey barriers in the shape of a massive military boot print — to veterans of Middle Eastern military operations dating back to Operation Desert Shield in 1990.
Maj. Gen. Don Dunbar, Wisconsin’s adjutant general who spoke at the July 23 dedication ceremony, sought to establish historical context for the tribute. Though the Berlin Wall had come tumbling down in 1989, the United States was still engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in August 1990, and its military — though powerful — was largely untested and unproven since the end of the Vietnam War. Then Iraq invaded Kuwait.
“The world held its breath and wondered what would happen,” Dunbar said. “And then President [George H.W.] Bush said those immortal words — ‘this will not stand.’”
The U.S. formed a coalition of nations against Iraq, mobilized forces to Saudi Arabia and called on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait. The United Nations authorized the use of force to liberate Kuwait, and when Iraq ignored a U.S. deadline to leave Kuwait, that force was unleashed. U.S. air power led a devastating six-week campaign against Iraq, setting the stage for the punishing 100-hour ground war that drove beleaguered Iraqi forces north across the border.
“The all-volunteer force came home to ticker-tape parades and wondrous support from the American people,” Dunbar continued, adding that Vietnam veterans were invited to join in the parades. “Many of our citizens believed that the parades signaled an end to Middle East conflict. Sadly, they were wrong — we had a long way to go.”
The adjutant general referred to the increase of terror attacks against U.S. forces and interests, both abroad and on the mainland. The Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks changed the U.S. military posture in the Middle East from merely containing Hussein in Iraq to engaging terrorist organizations in Afghanistan, and eventually Iraq.
While Dunbar spoke of U.S. troops, his statement also applies to the thoughts and, in some cases, lives of Wisconsin veterans. Since the global war on terror began in 2001, 10 Wisconsin National Guard members died while deployed — Spc. Michelle Witmer, April 9, 2004; Staff Sgt. Todd Olson, Dec. 27, 2004; Spc. Charles Kaufman, June 26, 2005; Spc. Michael Wendling and Sgt. Andrew Wallace, Sept. 26, 2005; Cpl. Stephen Castner, July 24, 2006; Sgt. Ryan Jopek, Aug. 2, 2006; Staff Sgt. Robert Basham, April 14, 2007; Master Sgt. Brian Naseman, May 21, 2009; and Sgt. Ryan Adams, Oct. 2, 2009.
One of the benches in the Persian Gulf Tribute bears the name of Sgt. Ryan Jopek, a member of the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Troop, 105th Cavalry who deployed with the 2nd Battalion, 127th Infantry to Kuwait in 2005 for a convoy escort mission. On Aug. 2, 2006, during one of his battalion’s final missions before returning to the United States, Ryan was killed by an improvised explosive device — a roadside bomb — near Tikrit, Iraq.
His father, Brian Jopek, is also a Wisconsin Army National Guard veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom who had served in Mosul perhaps a year before his son deployed, and has carried the weight of his son’s loss every day for the past 10 years. A couple of years ago, Brian learned of the Persian Gulf Tribute and the ability to sponsor its benches and jersey barriers.
“I wanted Ryan to be on that memorial in a pretty big way,” Brian said, who launched a GoFundMe campaign to pay for the bench. “A bunch of my friends, a few anonymous donors, came through and got the money raised for it.”
The campaign also raised an additional $1,100 dollars that went to the Ryan Jopek Scholarship Fund in Merrill, Wisconsin.
Brian spoke at the July 25 candlelight ceremony closing the tribute’s weeklong dedication. He spoke about July 23 — not 2016, but July 23, 2006, the last day he spoke to Ryan. And along with Highground organizer June Berg, he read the names of Wisconsin veterans who lost their lives from Desert Storm on — including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the 2015 terror attack in Tennessee.
“Veterans did a slow hand salute after every 10 names were read, accompanied by the liberty bell at the top of the hill,” Brian said. “It’s a very moving experience, especially if you’re a veteran, and especially if you’ve ever served in a combat zone. It can bring tears to your eyes.”
Brian described the Highground Veterans Memorial as a special place. Dunbar agreed.
“You can visit, you can remember, you can breathe,” Dunbar said. “You can heal, you can contemplate, you can find your peace — and I think you can find solace.”
Dunbar spoke of the contributions National Guard and Reserve service members have made in the global war on terror since Sept. 11, 2001, and the value of an all-volunteer force.
The boot-shaped Persian Gulf Tribute, Dunbar said, “reminds us of time away, of baking heat and bitter cold, aching joints from serving in a distant and unforgiving land. But it also says, in my opinion, ‘we stand with you — this generation of warriors.’
“This tribute is unique, and the Highground is unique,” Dunbar continued, “to my generation — Boomers and Gen-Xers and Millennials — a generation of veterans. Here at the Highground, the doughboy is connected to the Gen-Xer, the Millennial is connected to the Vietnam veteran, and the Baby Boomer is connected to the ‘greatest generation.’”
Brian said the Highground is one of his favorite places to visit in Wisconsin, even though it is nearly three hours from his home.
“This tribute is outstanding,” Dunbar said. “I’m overwhelmed by it. The Highground is hallowed ground.”