I searched everywhere in the heart of America to buy some sunflowers for my stops at the Korean War memorials in Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence and Overland Park. Upon learning that Kansas is also known as the “Sunflower State,” I wanted to bring them for the 429 Kansans who died in the war, and 100 POW/MIAs who never returned home to see the golden flowers blossom in their home state.
Luckily I finally found a bunch just in time to place them at the last memorial in the 15th state in my joruney before I crossed the state line to Missouri, the 16th state.
I’ve been on the road for a month now — on a 50-state, 70-city, 90-day trek to thank as many surviving Korean War veterans as possible in person, while paying tribute to those who didn’t make it back from fighting in Korea between June 25, 1950 and July 27, 1953.
The marathon includes visiting and laying a wreath at a Korean War memorial in all 50 states, because there were casualties in every single one. In fact, New York suffered the third-greatest loss, after California and Pennsylvania, with 2,373 killed in action and 515 prisoners of war or missing in action.
These are not mere numbers. They’re real people. Mostly between the ages of 18 and 20 when they died, they were someone’s sons, brothers, uncles, fathers and husbands-to-be. And, of course, friends to so many.
I’ll never forget the unending tears of Jorja Elliot Reyburn, whom I had met at the Korean War memorial in Boise, Idaho. Her father, First Lieutenant James H. Elliot, was a World War II veteran who reenlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He volunteered for a night patrol on August 27, 1950, along the Nakdong River in the Battle of the Nakdong Bulge and was never seen again.
Jorja was only 2 years old then; even after 68 years, she’s still grieving and yearning for her father.
“The hurt never goes away,” she told me. “You would think that with time a person would get over that, but you never do.”
In 2015, Jorja’s brother and she were fortunate enough to travel to Korea, where they actually stood on the banks of the Nakdong River where their father went missing. The South Korean government provided a wreath with their father’s name, and another for their mother, who had passed away just three months prior, in belief that their souls would be reunited.
“It was a beautiful ceremony. It brought us some closure — probably the only closure we will have in our lifetime.”
It broke my heart to imagine her unfathomable pain. I could only tell her that I’m praying for a successful outcome of the current peace talks on the Korean Peninsula so that we might someday recover the remains of estimated 5,500 unaccounted-for Americans presumed in North Korea.
It’s also what I told Mariann Meyer, a Blue Star Mother and sister of Donald E. McClellan Jr., who went missing in action on Dec. 11, 1950 in Korea. She had read that I was visiting the Korean War memorial in Albuquerque, N.M., and came out to join me in honoring the veterans and their fallen comrades. She brought me a picture of her brother.
There’s a bigger purpose behind my odyssey.
I’m hoping that, as I travel across the country, I can help raise awareness and funds to help etch the names of more than 36,000 KIAs and 8,000 POW/MIAs on the Wall of Remembrance that would be added to the National Korean War Memorial in Washington.
I want generations of America to remember those who paid the ultimate price in the so-called Forgotten War, and viscerally see that freedom isn’t free.
Personally, I and 2 million Korean Americans enjoying freedom in our beautiful country are especially indebted to those who served and died in Korea.
We are eternally grateful to the valiant men and women “who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t be here.
I truly believe that there’s no greater love than to lay down one’s life for another. One need not travel to all 50 states and more than 15,000 miles like me to understand that, or to thank those who demonstrated the greatest love of all. Just take a moment to say a little prayer at a memorial near you.