Local citizens filled the Kenai City Council Chambers beyond capacity Wednesday to show their emphatic support for a veterans memorial in Leif Hansen Memorial Park. Two additional rows of chairs were added to ensure seats for everyone in the room.
While there has been no agenda item addressing the cross symbol on the veterans monument installed last summer, council members Ryan Marquis and Terry Bookey, who said they were following up on resident complaints, contacted city the administration and attorney to investigate the potential liability of having a religious symbol on city property.
Scott Hamann, a Kenai resident, designer of the monument and owner of Metal Magic, said the monument pays respects to the soldiers of the Vietnam War who did not return home. On the base of the 12-foot monument is a scene with a soldier kneeling in front of a fallen soldiers cross.
In the image the soldier’s boots, gun and helmet are placed in front of the cross with the inscription “Never Forgotten.”
Bob Myles, a Kenai resident and member of the National Veterans of Foreign Wars Committee, gave a scheduled public comment to the council in response to the concerns local veterans had if the city had decided to move forward with a suggestion to relocate the monument.
Myles, a combat veteran of the Vietnam War who has worked in burial detail, said the cross on the statue is symbolic as a grave marker, a symbol that can be found all over town.
“If you are concerned about the cross, what about the city seal with the Russian Orthodox Church on it or the city graveyard,” he said. “You thought out the layout, design and placement and I ask it remains left alone in place.”
He asked for any supporters in the crowd to stand and be recognized and everyone in the room stood. Myles received a round of applause after he concluded his remarks. Twelve people gave public comments to the council all in favor of keeping the monument as is currently stands.
Dave Thompson, a member of the VFW, said the cross has been a symbol for the memorial of death used by Romans and Persians well before the birth of Christ. Norm Erickson, a veteran and member of the American Legion, said he is offended that the cross would offend someone.
“It upsets me to think that without the cross, some of my buddies wouldn’t be remembered,” he said.
Mayor Pat Porter thanked everyone for their heartfelt comments. After the meeting, she said the veterans have taken the memorial very seriously when word went out that the city was looking into the legitimacy of a cross being on city land.
“They don’t want anything done with it and are willing to take a stand,” she said. “It’s not an issue before the city council and I hope it never becomes an issue, but they certainly were in attendance letting us know they were in support of keeping the memorial where it is.”
Marquis said he understands the veterans’ passionate feelings on the matter but the cross on the memorial doesn’t offend any of the council members. He said he was presented with information from a concerned citizen and passed it onto the city administration and city attorney to research the topic. That has been the extent of the council’s involvement, he said.
“Overall I’m disappointed so many people are mislead to believe the city council is taking action on the memorial,” he said. “People spoke about being upset that people are offended by the cross. I am not offended by the cross.”
He cited the recent lawsuit filed by the American Humanist Association against the City of Lake Elsinore, Calif., where a similar monument with a soldier kneeling in front of a cross couldn’t be built because a judge ruled it violated the U.S. Constitution in the separation of church and state.
Council member Mike Boyle, a veteran himself, said before Wednesday, this wasn’t an issue. He cautioned one commenter who said, “Anyone who sues the city over a war memorial is an idiot.”
“Idiots do win lawsuits,” Boyle said.
Myles invited the council members to take a walk through Fort Richardson National Cemetery in Anchorage and view all the grave markers adorned with crosses. “I believe we got the message across. People spoke from knowledge and spent time digging up facts,” he said. “People spoke from heart. I was surprised nobody spoke against memorial.”