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Fashioning A Memorial Of Art And Stone

On an empty stretch of highway in Iowa, a 12-foot-tall, 56-ton rock gets a fresh paint job every Memorial Day.

It's the "Freedom Rock," and for each of the past ten years, its creator has dedicated a month of his life to covering it with tributes to veterans - a living monument to the troops.

Ray "Bubba" Sorensen was only 19 years old when he first saw the movie "Saving Private Ryan," and decided that patriotism was at an all-time low.

"People think Memorial Day is just a three-day weekend," said Sorensen. "I decided to go out there and paint the rock to say 'thank you' to the soldiers for their freedom and flag-raising."

Three years ago, a group of veterans on their way to the Vietnam Wall Memorial dropped by the site in Adair County and asked to sprinkle ashes there.

Sorensen offered to incorporate them into the paint so that they wouldn't blow away. Everything happened so quickly that he never even got the names of the eight veterans whose ashes now reside underneath his 2005 painting of a helicopter.

What began as a spur-of-the-moment decision has come to define it. Just the other day, Sorensen received a call to paint the ashes of an eleventh veteran onto the rock. It will happen at the ten-year celebration of the "Freedom Rock," which will take place this Sunday.

This year's mural features a soldier from every major conflict in U.S. history. On the backside, he has painted the faces of the four soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their service in Iraq and Afghanistan. There's also a tribute to disabled veterans.

Cars and trucks used to whiz by without a passing glance to this graffiti site, just 15 feet away from Interstate 25. Now, many take the time to stop. Word of mouth and a well-circulated e-mail written by a stranger five years ago have drawn thousands from all 50 states to the roadside landmark.

Visitors sometimes hover silently nearby as Sorensen paints. Other visitors have been moved to tears.

Sorensen vividly recalls a hot, sweaty day during which he had become agitated with visitors constantly interrupting his work. Then a mother put her hand on his shoulder.

"She told me, 'My son is a soldier. We just lost him in Iraq.'" She and her husband had driven from Illinois after the funeral to see the rock. Sorensen said her words made him "step back and remember why I was doing all this.

"I think in the instance when someone has lost a loved one, they want to know, 'Please God this wasn't for nothing. This wasn't an unappreciated sacrifice,'" said Sorensen.

"I think they see through me that it wasn't for nothing ... These veterans give so much. They lay their life on the line. They feel like they deserve a monument. This lets them know in Middle America, we're thinking about them."

Perhaps the most memorable image Sorensen has ever painted on the rock was that of Lance Corporal Clinton "CJ" Miller, who was killed in action in December 2006. Miller was a good friend who came from the same small town of 2,000 people.

A few years ago, Sorensen considered ceasing his work. Painting the rock costs money and it becomes a second full-time job for one month a year, without pay. But then a huge surge of community support changed his mind.

The rock has been vandalized twice since Sorensen began painting it, but he doesn't think the odds are high that it will happen again soon.

"In May 2001, I painted a tribute to the 60th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor," recalls Sorensen. "This kid put up all this anti-American graffiti on it. One of the local Vietnam Veterans tracked down who did it, and beat the crap out of him."

Visit for information on the artist and Freedom Rock.