The soldiers and families of the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team had one last, heartfelt task to accomplish before they bring the unit's second deployment to Iraq to a close today.
They gathered Wednesday for the unveiling of a memorial to honor the brigade's fallen soldiers, most of whom have died during its two deployments to Iraq.
To much applause, brigade commanders and Olympia-area sculptor Gareth Curtiss removed a blue cloth to unveil a clay model of an Arrowhead Brigade soldier in full battle gear. The model will serve as the foundation for a 6-foot bronze statue to be completed in November.
In brief remarks, Col. Steve Townsend said the project started three years ago, while the brigade was in the midst of its first deployment to Iraq, with an idea, a few sketches and a few dollars in a bank account.
"All this work was a labor of love" to recognize the sacrifices of the soldiers, he said.
Dozens of family members attended the ceremony, surrounded by soldiers standing at attention.
During the reading of the 88 names that will be featured on the memorial, family members stood close together or hugged one another for comfort, many wiping away tears.
"I'm almost speechless," a teary-eyed Terry Dutcher, a former Lacey resident, said after the ceremony. Her 19-year-old son, Cpl. Michael Pursel, was killed in May. "I think my expectations were not even close to what I saw. It's awesome. I didn't realize there were so many names - 88 names."
The joint project of the brigade and the nonprofit Arrowhead Soldier and Family Fund, which supports the brigade's welfare, will be paid for by private donations of $55,000.
Staff Sgt. Tim English, a supply sergeant assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Infantry Regiment, said he worked closely during both deployments with several of the soldiers whose names will be on the memorial.
English, who lives in Lacey with his wife, Ginger, is happy that the memorial will be completed before he retires from the Army.
"It's something for me to remember the guys I worked with who lost their lives, made the ultimate sacrifice," he said.
The statue will stand atop a granite base etched with the names of soldiers assigned to the brigade who died in combat or training, as well as those from other units who died while they were under the brigade's operational control.
This silent sentinel will stand watch over a traditional battlefield memorial that features combat boots, an inverted rifle, helmet and dog tags.
The memorial will be near brigade headquarters at Fort Lewis.
Curtiss said the project developed as an "offshoot" to a statue dedicated a year ago honoring the sacrifice of military families. The statue, commissioned by the Rotary Club of Hawks Prairie at Marvin Road and Quinault Drive in Lacey, depicts a soldier reuniting with his wife and child.
For this statue, the resolve expressed through the soldier's stance is contrasted by the names of the fallen, he said.
"You have the strength but you also have the sacrifice," Curtiss said.
The weather matched the mood of the ceremony. As a bugler played taps, a light drizzle fell on the saluting soldiers and grieving families.