‘Slap in the face to our veterans’: Michigan war memorial destroyed by flooding

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Kim Burgess unfolds a flag she recovered from the Veterans War memorial dedicated veterans and her son lance corporal Ryan Burgess who was killed in Iraq. The Veterans Memorial stood near Saginaw Rd. in Sanford Michigan on May 21, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses.

SANFORD, Mich. — The road leading to the Sanford Flagpole Monument was closed, washed out by the flood.

Kim Burgess heard the monument was under water after the flood that devastated this small community. Then, she heard a report that was far worse.

So she headed toward the monument — the one she and her husband, Jon, helped build — but she was stopped at a police barricade.

 “Are you Ryan Burgess’ mother?” an officer said.

“Yes,” she said.

Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan Burgess was killed on Dec. 21, 2006, when an improvised explosive device blew up his Humvee on a mission in Iraq. He was 21.

“I’m not supposed to let anybody by,” the officer said. “But I’m gonna let you go by.”

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Ryan J. Burgess was killed in Iraq in December 2006.

Kim parked as close as she could get to the monument. Kim and Jon, who are retired from Dow Chemical, thought about making a monument for years. But they didn’t want it to honor only Ryan. They wanted it to be for all veterans.

Sanford never had a war memorial until Ryan died. More than 100 people from the community played a role in building it, raising money or donating supplies. Last year, the town’s Memorial Day parade started and ended at the monument.

In some ways, the monument became the heart and soul of Sanford, reflecting civic pride, duty, and honor. The monument made Sanford glow — quite literally. It had a lighting system that seemed to make half the town light up at night.

Kim got out of her truck and walked toward the monument. Roads were ripped up. Houses washed away. Buildings destroyed. Debris was everywhere.

She saw two men leaning against a building and one approached her.

 “I’m not gonna let you go see this alone,” said Terry Foley, who works at Fisher Sand & Gravel, one of the major contributors for the memorial.

Foley tried to brace Kim for what she was going to see.

“I know it’s gonna be devastating, but I want you to know we’re already working to rebuild it,” Foley said.

Kim reached the memorial and was crushed. The monument was destroyed.

“I sat there and cried,” Kim said. “I just felt like I had let our veterans down. I know it wasn’t my fault. I just feel like I worked so hard to give them something, and it was just destroyed.”

It stirred up all the pain like she had lost a piece of herself again.

“I don’t think I wept because of the monument. I just wept because of the veterans. I just felt like it was a slap in the face to our veterans. We worked so hard to give them something and then it was just taken away.”

‘A nightmare movie’: Tales of Michigan residents escaping the catastrophic Midland flood

Monument ‘was a healing place’

The monument was a thing of beauty, a testament to a small-town determination, community involvement, and pride. More than 10 businesses donated money or supplies and the Sanford American Legion Riders held fundraisers over three years. In total, they raised about $70,000 to build it.

The monument featured an underground sprinkler system and a paved walkway. There were seven aluminum flag poles, 35-feet tall, that honored every branch of the military, as well as soldiers who went missing in action or became prisoners of war. An engineer designed the flagpoles to withstand high winds, never thinking they should be concerned with a flood.

The flag poles formed a background for a military field cross — a symbolic figure that features a fallen soldier’s weapon stabbed into the ground, with a boot on either side and a helmet on the stock.

But the storm snapped six of the poles, bent another one and knocked the military field cross into a muddy puddle.

 “I can take anything,” Kim said. “I lost a son in Iraq. Bring it. But I cannot see that laying in the mud. We can’t let this lay in the mud.”

“Kim, I promise we will get it out for you,” Foley said.

A portion of the Veterans War Memorial is seen in floodwaters in Sanford Michigan on May 21, 2020. The Sanford dam that held the Tittabawassee river failed causing massive flooding destroying homes and businesses.

Somebody found the giant U.S. flag in the mud. Foley folded it up and handed it to Kim. “I know it’s not much but I’d like you to have this,” Foley said.

At the same time, people were walking around Sanford, trying to start the cleanup and shocked at what they were seeing.

 “Some people pulled up behind me and they got out of their car and they said, ‘Oh my God! Where’s our house?’” Kim said.

“And I thought to myself, am I being selfish for feeling so sad about this? And then I got to thinking, you know, we did not lose a building. This is more about PTSD and memories and war. It’s a place where veterans can go and sit and think about a friend they lost over there or a relative. They can go to that monument and reflect, so it’s more of a mental type thing that we lost or mental-healing type place. That’s what we lost. It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a structure, but it was a healing place. So that’s why I’m so devastated, just devastated.”

A new mission: ‘We’re gonna build this thing again’

After a while, the shock and pain were replaced with resolve and determination.

“We’re gonna build this thing again,” Kim said. “If it takes us 10 years, we’re gonna do this for our veterans. We want these veterans to know that we still love them. We still care for them.”

They have already started plans to rebuild the monument, forming a GoFundMe fundraising campaign.

Before and after::See destruction of Michigan flooding in satellite images

“We are gonna need help,” Kim said. “We’re going to need help from our community again, but we are going to do this.”

She plans to put that dirty American flag — mud and all — in a permanent display case at the new monument, so people will remember the flood of 2020.

 “It’s going to show that Old Glory still flew,” she said. “And we’re gonna show people that we can rebound from this.”

She plans to add another element to the monument, a flag pole to honor the first responders who worked so hard saving lives during this flood.

“It will be for EMS, firefighters and police officers,” she said. “We did not have a single loss of life in our community. That’s phenomenal — the work they did, getting people out of their homes in boats. Firefighters working 48 to 72 hours nonstop. We have to honor them.”

About an hour after Kim left, somebody from Fisher Sand & Gravel lifted the military field cross out of the mud and moved it to safety.

 It will go to the new memorial.

 “That’s how our community acts,” Kim said, softly. “I’m so proud of our community.”

Follow Jeff Seidel on Twitter: @seideljeff

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