As Ray “Bubba” Sorensen paints the face of a prisoner of war on the side of a 60-ton granite boulder near Menlo, Iowa (pop. 358), visitors quietly watch him work.
Randy Witte, 55, of Rockwell City, Iowa, strides over to the artist and extends his hand. “Thank you, sir,” he tells Sorensen. “Don’t ever stop.”
Witte’s nephew, Sgt. Jon E. Bonnell Jr., was killed in 2007 in Iraq, and Witte was remembering the sacrifices of the 22-year-old Marine and other U.S. military veterans last May as he watched Sorensen paint what has become known as The Freedom Rock.
Sorensen, 32, didn’t set out to create a permanent roadside memorial to veterans in 1999. Just 19 at the time, the budding artist intended to paint a one-time, patriotic tribute after being inspired by the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Wanting to express his gratitude to veterans, he painted one side of the boulder with the iconic World War II image of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima. He added the message: “Thank You Veterans for Our Freedom.”
The 12-foot-tall boulder, quarried in the 1960s by Schildberg Construction Co. and parked on their property along state Highway 25, was Sorensen’s choice for a canvas. For decades, he and other students had decorated the rock with sweethearts’ names and assorted graffiti.
But since 1999, the boulder has been a rock-solid tribute to the nation’s veterans by the muralist and graphic artist who operates Sorensen Studios in nearby Greenfield (pop. 1,982) with his photographer-wife Maria, 26. So many veterans urged him to continue painting patriotic scenes on the rock that he decided to make it a Memorial Day tradition.
Early each May, Sorensen covers over the previous year’s mural with white house paint, then devotes hundreds of hours creating new military-themed and patriotic images. Ideas come from historical research and suggestions from friends and fans. Working with a photograph or sketch as a reference, Sorensen uses his paintbrush to outline the scenes on the stone. He steps back frequently to gain perspective of his work.
“Then it’s like a paint-by-number where I fill in the colors and add layers,” says Sorensen, who studied art design at Iowa State University in Ames.
Last year, he painted a portrait of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, who served and perished together during World War II aboard the USS Juneau. Other parts of the mural depicted U.S. Navy sailor Taylor Morris, 23, of Cedar Falls, who was severely wounded last year in Afghanistan, and the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery. A painting of a Vietnam War-era green Huey helicopter is left unchanged each year, except for touchups. Since 2006, the artist has added the ashes of 40 Vietnam veterans to the chopper’s green paint.
“I was working out here and motorcyclists on their way to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., stopped and wanted to scatter the ashes of veterans at the base of The Freedom Rock,” Sorensen recalls. Noting the strong wind, he suggested mixing their ashes into the paint so they could become a permanent part of The Freedom Rock.
Thousands of people visit the boulder each year to pay homage to the nation’s military heroes. A bench, picnic table and information kiosk have been added to the site.
“Anytime I’m near this place, I stop and pay my respects,” says U.S. Army veteran Richard Slack, 53, of Ankeny, Iowa, who served in Iraq in 2003 and 2008. “I reflect a little bit while I’m here. Hopefully, people don’t forget the sacrifices we’re making.”
Sorensen certainly hasn’t forgotten and dreams of finding sponsors so he can paint similar tributes for a Freedom Rock tour across the United States.
“I’ve always had a soft spot for veterans,” says Sorensen, who grew up hearing his mother speak with pride about her brother, Ted Tucker, who served with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam.
“This is my thank-you card to veterans,” Sorensen says, “but it’s ironic because they come here and thank me.”