Dispute erupts after Wheaton military memorial dismantled

 
 
  • Herb Wehling, left, and Dave Larson stand on the site at the DuPage County complex where 22 steel crosses once stood. The crosses honored area members of the armed services who gave their lives fighting since the Sept. 11 attacks, including Larson's son, Nick.

    Herb Wehling, left, and Dave Larson stand on the site at the DuPage County complex where 22 steel crosses once stood. The crosses honored area members of the armed services who gave their lives fighting since the Sept. 11 attacks, including Larson's son, Nick. Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

  • Officials say 22 crosses at the DuPage County complex in Wheaton were removed due to safety concerns. Instead, the names of area servicemen who have died since Sept. 11, 2001, have been added to the county's permanent Veterans Memorial.

    Officials say 22 crosses at the DuPage County complex in Wheaton were removed due to safety concerns. Instead, the names of area servicemen who have died since Sept. 11, 2001, have been added to the county's permanent Veterans Memorial. Daily Herald file photo

Published: 11/29/2008 12:00 AM

Facing another Thanksgiving without his fallen Marine son, David Larson planned to spend part of the holiday praying for other military families who have lost loved ones.

But when the Wheaton man went to the DuPage County complex to visit a memorial honoring local residents who have died serving in the military since the Sept. 11 attacks, he found that all 22 steel crosses lining a path that leads to the memorial, including one bearing his son's name, had been removed.

All that remains are little mounds with shards of metal where the 2-by-3-foot crosses once stood.

"It just saddens me to see that they were cut down," said Larson, who often visited the site with his wife. The couple would place flowers and decorations at each of the crosses during holidays.

"We figured the crosses would be here until the end of the war," Larson said. "Who knew the war was going to be this long?"

On Friday, a representative for the not-for-profit group that oversees the official county memorial said the crosses always were meant to be temporary and were removed because of safety concerns.

"I personally have been a witness to visitors who have been wandering though the site slipping in snow and sleet and sliding down the hill," said Terry Owens, president of the DuPage Veterans Memorial Inc. "It just really scared us to death that somebody would slip and fall and hit their heads on one of those sharp crosses."

Instead of having crosses, most of the fallen military personnel's names already have been added to the official Veterans Memorial. Dedicated in 1999, the memorial commemorates more than 1,400 members of the armed forces from DuPage who died in combat or while serving in active duty since the Black Hawk War of 1832.

But while the DuPage Veterans Memorial board of directors decided weeks ago to remove the crosses after Veterans Day, no one told Herb Wehling.

Wehling, one of the Larsons' neighbors, organized the fundraising effort that paid for the creation and installation of the crosses.

The six original crosses were unveiled in November 2005 - one year after the Larsons' 19-year-old son, Lance Cpl. Nick Larson, was killed during an insurgent attack in Iraq.

Wehling said he knew the crosses would be temporary. Still, he says, he was under the impression they would stand until the end of the war in Iraq.

He said he didn't know they were removed until David Larson told him on Thanksgiving morning.

"There was no warning," Wehling said. "Nobody was told. I feel betrayed - absolutely betrayed."

Owens said he was planning to write a letter to Wehling, but was unable to send it before leaving on vacation.

Wehling insists there weren't any plans to remove the crosses as names were added to the Veterans Memorial. But Owens says the intention was never to keep the crosses up for the duration of the war.

"I'm sorry if he (Wehling) misconstrued what the agreement was," Owens said. "It was extremely clear when we first put those up. How it got clouded in the interim, I can't explain that."

Still, with casualties continuing in Iraq and Afghanistan, David Larson said he believes it's important for DuPage to have a separate memorial military members who have fallen in those conflicts.

"Maybe this isn't a good spot for it," Larson said as he looked out on where the crosses stood. "But I think it's a good spot. It's not tucked away in some cemetery or on some piece of stone. This one kind of sticks out at you."

In the meantime, county leaders are getting involved.

"We're trying to figure out exactly what happened and make it right," county board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said Friday. "We want to honor the fallen, and we don't want anybody to have bad feelings about this."

Owens said he is proposing that the crosses be given to the families of the fallen servicemen. Wehling says that makes sense since it's unlikely the crosses could be put back up because of the way they were removed.

Still, he has one more suggestion.

"How can they make this right?" he said. "Apologize."