Retired Air Force General Al Palmer told the crowd that gathered for the dedication of the Veterans Memorial Park on Saturday afternoon, Sept. 11, what it took for this plot of land to become a tribute to the men and women who served, and are serving, in the U.S. Armed Forces.

“When you have vision, coupled with action, you can change the world,” said Palmer, who headed the Veterans Memorial Park Committee. “Without action, it’s a dream.”

For the hundreds who gathered at the 6.2-acre park on 24th Avenue and 34th Street South, he outlined the work and contributions of countless people -- individuals, organizations and business leaders -- that brought this park from an idea to reality.

Palmer also noted the 20th anniversary of the terrorist airborne attacks on the United States -- at the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the countryside near Shanksville, Pa. -- that took the lives of 2,977 innocent Americans.

That attack “was this generation’s Pearl Harbor,” he said.

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UND ROTC cadets Jack Halstead, left, and Maxim Ficarella unfurl the US flag displayed on 13 motorcycles representing soldiers who were killed in the recent Afghanistan attack. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
UND ROTC cadets Jack Halstead, left, and Maxim Ficarella unfurl the US flag displayed on 13 motorcycles representing soldiers who were killed in the recent Afghanistan attack. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Among other speakers at the dedication, Mayor Brandon Bochenski cited residents’ strong support for the military.

“They are our neighbors; they are our friends,” he said. “As I look around today, I see too much focus on self -- what is best for me.” The park is a reminder that “we could all live more selfless lives.”

Maj. Gen. Al Dohrmann, of the North Dakota National Guard, called the park “an amazing tribute to all our veterans.”

They are special, he said, because “they raised their hand and basically said, ‘Send me.’” He cited the sacrifice of Grand Forks Police Officer Cody Holte, a lieutenant in the North Dakota National Guard who promised to protect others, “up to and including at the cost of his own life,” Dohrmann said.

The dedication had personal meaning for many in the audience, including Steven and Anne Lian. Steven’s father, Elmer Lian, a native of Fairdale, N.D., was an Army Air Corps pilot who was a prisoner of war in Germany for nearly nine months during World War II. His is among the 156 images on the Memorial Wall.

Judge Kirk Smith views a picture of himself on the wall at the Veterans Memorial Park following Saturday's dedication. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Judge Kirk Smith views a picture of himself on the wall at the Veterans Memorial Park following Saturday's dedication. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

The Lians travelled from Nebo, N.C., to attend Saturday’s dedication. Steven Lian said his father, who lived much of his adult life in Grand Forks, “would be so proud” to have his image etched on the wall, “reminding all future generations of the sacrifice” of military veterans.

After the war, Elmer Lian dedicated himself to documenting his and others’ experience in World War II, but instead of dwelling on the negative, he took a positive approach, intent on analyzing it for the sake of preserving history.

“It’s really a wonderful legacy he left the family,” Steven Lian said.

Major donors

The leading gift for the project, $250,000, came from the Engelstad Family Foundation, according to Mike Hagen, who raised funds for the park.

“The Engelstad people were shocked how fast we got the grant (application) in,” he said.

He expected a response from the Engelstad Family Foundation “would take up to about a year,” but when he received the check just days after its submission, “it almost gave me a heart attack,” he recalled.

Ribbon-cutter Suzanne Kime reacts as she holds Gen. Al Palmer's tie that served as a makeshift ribbon during Saturday's ceremony. At left is Anna Walker who joined Kime in cutting the ribbon. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Ribbon-cutter Suzanne Kime reacts as she holds Gen. Al Palmer's tie that served as a makeshift ribbon during Saturday's ceremony. At left is Anna Walker who joined Kime in cutting the ribbon. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Other leading donors are: Disabled American Veterans, $125,000; Webster, Foster and Weston Engineers, $113,800; Red River Valley Motorcyclists, $104,255; Garrison Diversion Grant, $100,000; Rydell Auto, $93,683.43; Amundson Funeral Home, $66,611; Strata Corporation, $62,000; Gate City Bank, $52,000; the Neel Fund, $50,000; and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc., $50,000.

The VMP Committee is still seeking to raise about $150,000 for the park, Hagen said. The total investment, not including the land, will be well over $2 million.

As a community, Grand Forks has a long and honored military tradition -- from the establishment of the 164th Infantry in the 1880s to GFAFB in the 1950s, said Retired Air Force Col. Tom Saddler.

North Dakota has the highest number of Medal of Honor recipients per capita than any other state in the union, Palmer said.

“I recently saw a gentleman looking for his stone,” Saddler said recently. Nearly 1,200 engraved stones -- each with an individual’s name and military branch and dates of service -- have been sold at $200 each; they line the sidewalks.

Monsignor Brian Donahue shares a story before the benediction as speakers (L-R) UND president Andrew Armacost, 319 Wing Commander Col. Timothy Curry, ND TAG MG Al Dohrmann, and General Al Palmer look on. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Monsignor Brian Donahue shares a story before the benediction as speakers (L-R) UND president Andrew Armacost, 319 Wing Commander Col. Timothy Curry, ND TAG MG Al Dohrmann, and General Al Palmer look on. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

“It’s common to see families putting flags by the stones,” Saddler said, noting that he expects the park will become a destination spot for people in the area.

“I recently saw a lady sitting out on a bench, reading a book. And you see people pass through on bikes and rollerblades,” Saddler said. “I’ve met people who say, ‘Gosh, what a beautiful park this is; I really enjoy coming through here.’

“You can hardly go out there without seeing people.”

The park has already become a draw for many in the area.

About a week before the dedication, David and Cindy Flitter of Reynolds, N.D., were having lunch in a park shelter. David Flitter, an Air Force veteran who did two tours in Thailand in support of U.S. forces in Vietnam, said he worked on F105 aircraft that “did the majority of bombing in North Vietnam, by Hanoi.

“We lost a lot of good men and good airplanes,” he recalled, reflecting on his military service.

The Memorial Wall pictures “bring back a few memories,” he said, as do the names he sees on individual engraved stones flanking the sidewalks.

The park is “something that’s much-needed in this area,” said Flitter, who retired as a master sergeant in 1984. In the countryside, “you go through a lot of little towns and a majority of them have veterans parks, so it was about time Grand Forks got on board.”

More than 1,000 people attend Saturday's dedication of the Veterans Memorial Park September 11, 2021 in south Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
More than 1,000 people attend Saturday's dedication of the Veterans Memorial Park September 11, 2021 in south Grand Forks. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Tribute to military service

Saturday’s ceremony also included remarks by Grand Forks Air Force Base 319th Wing Commander Col. Timothy Curry who shared his memories of 9/11 and his role as part of the team that killed Osama Bin Laden -- that prompted a standing ovation from the audience.

The Red River Valley Motorcyclists positioned 13 bikes, which were draped with the U.S. flag by members of the UND ROTC program during the ceremony, in memory of those servicemen and -women who lost their lives in the recent U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan. Each deceased person’s name was read by Palmer.

During the ceremony, only the ribbon-cutting had to be ad-libbed, when it was discovered the actual ribbon was missing. Palmer offered his flag-themed tie as a substitute and promptly untied it.

“What a nice tie to cut,” Suzanne Kime, one of the official ribbon-cutters, quipped, to which Palmer added, “Now all we need are scissors.” Since they too were missing, Kime “cut” the ribbon with her fingers, which elicited laughter from the audience.

After a finale that featured colorful streamers and pillars of smoke shot into the air from the Memorial Wall, the crowd fell silent as the ceremony concluded with a 21-gun salute by members of the UND ROTC, followed by the singular trumpet solo, performed by Dave Christianson, of “Taps.”