Sonny Baltin of Sanford worked as a medic in the 82nd Airborne Division when he toured Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan in 2007. He stands well over 6 feet tall, has muscles that stretch his shirt, and tattoos that cover his arms and neck.
It’s hard to imagine something rattling him.
But Baltin, 33, said he became choked up Wednesday when Cary officials and a group of donors dedicated the Veterans Freedom Park to veterans of all wars and conflicts.
Volunteers passed out miniature American flags as taps and bagpipes played and onlookers celebrated the latest addition to the park: a 90-foot spire made of white granite.
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It all reminded Baltin of ceremonies he took part in while on duty overseas.
“Reminds me of the guys that didn’t come back,” he said. “Being here, seeing these other veterans, really chokes me up, makes me proud.”
The park is meant to make its observers proud and inspire future generations, said Ilario Pantano, assistant secretary for Veterans Affairs of North Carolina.
“This memorial park is not just an attaboy,” Pantano said. “This is a place to encourage a future generation and to remind them that freedom is not free.”
The 13-acre park near North Harrison Avenue and Cary Parkway was already home to a small, bronze memorial.
But Ann Goodnight, wife of SAS billionaire Jim Goodnight, thought the town could do more.
She came up with the idea of a monument after attending a Cary Visual Arts meeting several years ago, according to Steve Glass, who runs the National Veterans Freedom Park Foundation.
“She said, ‘We ought to do something for the veterans,’” Glass recalled.
So the couple partnered with the foundation and SAS Institute and hired artist Howard Meehan. Before long, Meehan was sitting in his New Mexico home with a glass of chardonnay trying to design a tall monument that’s “graceful and subdued.”
“I wanted it to go out into infinity, kind of like those trees back there,” Meehan told the crowd Wednesday.
It may evoke memories of 9/11, Meehan said, because he designed the spire with his uncle and father in mind. They were firefighters in lower Manhattan and helped dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center, he said.
The monument, which was reported to cost about $1.9 million, makes good use of open and closed space, said John Plymale, a SAS project manager who worked on the project.
“It has a very primal presence,” Plymale said. “I love how it turned out.”
It’s ‘hallowed ground’
Now that the monument is complete, Glass said, the National Veterans Freedom Park Foundation plans to transfer ownership of the park to the town of Cary to maintain at an estimated cost of $15,000 to $20,000 per year.
And now that the park has been dedicated, it’s “hallowed ground,” he said.
The spire is surrounded by a plaza with five entryways representing the branches of the military. A seal of one of the branches guards each entryway.
Bob Basnight, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Cary, was one of the hundreds walking around the monument after the ceremony.
Basnight said he had come to the dedication to remember the soldiers on both sides who fought during his time in the Navy from 1967 to 1971.
He recalled watching brutal battles through binoculars from the destroyer USS Rich, including one white phosphorus attack on Viet Cong soldiers.
“You could see them crawling to get away from the fire,” Basnight said. “Some might say ‘Who cares, they were VC.’ But that’s no way to die.”
Tom Rudisill, a Korean war veteran from Cary, stood and marveled at the monument from the grassy lawn near Harrison Avenue.
“It’s magnificent, really,” Rudisill said. “What a great statement to make for the people who give us all these freedoms.”