ADRIAN -- A mobile memorial that pays tribute to fallen combat dogs and handlers will be in southwest Minnesota on Saturday, making stops in Luverne from 9 to 11 a.m. at the Minnesota Veterans Home and 1 to 4 p.m. at the Argonne Legion Post 32 in Adrian.
The travelling memorial was created by Kevin Sonka, founder of the Rocky Mountain Dawgs Project and Gold Star father of U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. David Sonka, a dog handler killed in the line of duty, along with his K9, Flex, while serving in Afghanistan in May 2013.
Sonka is passing through southwest Minnesota on his way to a weekend parade in Albert Lea. He was invited to make the local stops by Curtis Hendel, a fellow member of the Feed the Dawgs organization. Hendel, now first vice commander of Adrian’s American Legion, served in the U.S. Air Force from 1985 to 1991 and was a dog handler.
With the memorial’s stop in Adrian, Hendel has coordinated an array of veteran-related organizations and associations to be on hand for a Dawg Days of Summer Veterans Summit at the Argonne Legion Post.
Hendel, who has already viewed the travelling memorial, said “it’s a pretty spectacular deal” that Sonka has created to honor the 31 fallen military dogs and 31 fallen dog handlers killed in the War on Terror.
“Everybody that has any interest is invited to come,” he said. “Anybody who has a veteran in the family or active duty military or guards -- I think almost anybody could pull something from this day.”
The memorial will be set up north of the legion building, while Hendel has invited an array of special guests to be on hand to meet with veterans inside the Legion hall.
Among the guests are:
David Peters of Operation: 23 to Zero, which is dedicated to fighting military suicide.
Kirk Mansfield of the Faribault American Legion Post 43, who is active in Ruck Marches to bring awareness to veteran suicides.
Tyler and Patrick Skluzacek, a Minnesota father and son showcasing their “My Bivy” project, a smart watch app Tyler developed to help his father fight night terrors associated with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rita Marques, St. Paul Vet’s Center, offering information for veterans struggling to readjust after combat experiences and helping those who suffered sexual assault/harassment while on active duty.
Janelle Christensen, Suicide Prevention Coordinator at the Sioux Falls, S.D. Veteran’s Administration.
Bill Brockberg, Nobles County Veterans Service Officer; and
Kris Schneeberg, a member of the Legion Riders, a branch of the American Legion family.
Also represented will be The Dawgs Project, which provides steak barbecues to America’s front line defenders and supports the military working dog community at home and off shore; and “A Warrior’s Reintegration” photography exhibit by Mike MacDonald to raise awareness of the issues veterans face after leaving the service.
Hendel said he is excited to have so many people together in one place to assist veterans.
“My goal for the past five years is to find help for people who have served or had a family member serve,” he said.
At one time, Adrian had six individuals deployed to the Middle East -- “ a huge number for a small town,” Hendel said. “We told them if they had any questions, come to us (at the American Legion).
“I just have the drive to help these people,” he added. “I see there are issues out there. I want to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem.”
In developing the Dawg Days of Summer Veterans Summit, Hendel said the goal is to link people with resources that are available, whether they need assistance from county, state or federal services or can be helped by the array of organizations created to assist veterans once they return home.
“I just feel if we have different organizations working together … we can help each other,” Hendel said. “I see it as a force multiplier. Four people together can do four times what someone can do by themselves.”
Throughout the afternoon summit, local Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts will be serving grilled hot dogs, while the American Legion Auxiliary and the Sons of the American Legion will offer snacks and refreshments.