As West Ash Creek gurgles in the distance, a peaceful silence envelops a spot on West Ash Creek Road, almost as if it’s already paying tribute to fallen soldiers that will one day be memorialized here.
Retired Col. John D. Folsom’s vision is a living memorial to the veterans who have died in the U.S. Central Command Theater since Sept. 11, 2001. Folsom is the president of Wounded Warriors Family Support (not to be confused with the Wounded Warriors Project) and this spring has started planting 7,000 trees on land owned by the group.
“Initially I bought the land thinking we could build a veterans’ retreat,” Folsom said. Logistically, however, it was going to be difficult to transport veterans to the retreat down West Ash Creek Road outside of Crawford. But Folsom and his organization still wanted to use the land, acquired about 10 years ago, to honor veterans.
He’s never much liked the idea of marble and granite and chose instead to plant trees – one for each of the casualties in the Central Command Theater.
“Sept. 11 for a lot of Americans – for a couple of generations – was their Dec. 7, 1941,” Folsom said. “We are going to nurture and care for these trees in the same way we look after our children, the same way those parents raised their children to serve our country.”
Folsom was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps in August of 1980. He spent six years on active duty, including three years with a helicopter squadron in Hawaii and was aboard the USS Tarawa in 1983 in the Suez Canal and Beirut, Lebanon, “when it was getting really crazy.”
Before he retired in 2010, his military career took him to Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. He lives in Omaha now, and purchased land in the Pine Ridge in 2006. He traded parcels with a neighbor the next year and has been working toward his dream of a tribute to veterans since.
Northwest Nebraska captivated him with its beauty and historical significance.
“It’s a special land to a lot of people,” he said. “It figured prominently in the development of our country.”
From the Oglala Lakota Sioux and fur traders to the pioneers and all of the military history captured at Fort Robinson, the region is rich with history, and Folsom often finds himself wondering if Crazy Horse crossed where he’s working. Whether Crazy Horse walked the land that now belongs to Wounded Warriors Family Support, it does carry a piece of its own history, reflected by a grave marker inscribed “Wanda’s Highway” with the names of former Dawes County Commissioners.
According to a 1976 story in The Chadron Record, when the county was grading the road bed for West Ash Creek Road in 1923, the remains of what was believed to have been a Native American woman were discovered. Local residents built a wooden coffin lined with satin and conducted a burial ceremony to re-inter the woman in a hill along the road. The road marker was inscribed in her honor.
With the help of Dan Larsen and Randy Wheeler, Folsom has started the planting process, choosing the Rocky Mountain Juniper in part because it is native to the area and in part because its bluish color brings to mind the highest military honors. The evergreen tree, like a Christmas tree, will remind those who visit that we are promised a life in the hereafter, Folsom said.
Nearly 6,900 soldiers have died in the Central Command Theater since 2001, and the 7,000 trees Folsom is planting will represent each one of them.
“As I plant, I talk to the trees. I sometimes wonder who they will represent and encourage them to grow.”
The trees will be staggered like the stars on the American flag, and phase two of the project will be stone markers at each tree that will carry the name, rank, unit and place and date of death in chronological order.
“As you move through here, you’ll have a chronological sense of where we were.”
Donors will be able to subscribe to a stone marker, which will help maintain and expand the memorial and keep the land in perpetuity. The group is also working on an interactive website – a virtual forest, if you will – so those who are unable to visit in person will be able to pull up data about each service member represented.
Across the road, Folsom has plans to develop a picnic area, a place for families to make memories trout fishing or simply spending a quiet time together. The picnic area will be named in honor of Ronald Leroy Coker, a Vietnam veteran from Alliance who received the Medal of Honor. Coker was serving with the Third Marine Division in 1969 when the patrol he was leading encountered five enemy soldiers. He wounded one of the enemy soldiers and his squad pursued them to a cave, where they came under hostile fire. One of Coker’s men was wounded and exposed. Coker braved enemy fire, ignored his own injury and reached the wounded man after throwing a hand grenade toward the enemy and suppressing hostile fire.
As Coker began to drag his man to cover, an enemy grenade landed near them. Coker grabbed the weapon and turned away from his wounded companion. Before he could toss the grenade away, it exploded him, causing him further injury, but he refused to leave his comrade. As the men made their way toward friendly lines, Coker sustained injuries from two other grenades but continued to crawl and pull the other wounded soldier with him. His fellow Marines were eventually able to suppress the enemy and reach the two men. Coker later died from his injuries.
Folsom said the Wounded Warriors Family Support group will continue planting trees as casualties in the Central Command Theater mount. Anyone wishing to volunteer to plant or tend the trees or donate toward the effort can contact him at 402-490-7875.