On July 7, a dedication of a memorial wall was held at Camp American Legion.
The wall is named for Vietnam veteran, Medal of Honor recipient and Wisconsin resident Gary Wetzel.
Prior to the dedication ceremony, Wetzel was talking to a small group of people, mostly fellow veterans.
"To be in harm's way doesn't make you a brave person but makes you kind of proud to take time out of your life to serve," Wetzel said.
One of the veterans listening was Mike Burt who, like Wetzel, had been deployed to an active combat zone during the course of his time in the military.
In Burt's case, it was Iraq during 2004.
He told Wetzel his son has also been deployed a total of four times to combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I had my boy meet the guys who were on an April 9 ambush in Iraq where we lost quite a few people as part of the insurgency," he said.
Burt, with Engineers Local 139, was directly involved in the wall's construction as the project coordinator at the head of a hiking trail known as "Gary Wetzel Way," dedicated during the summer of 2016.
He shared with Wetzel his interpretation of the wall's design, done by architect Jim French of CSD Structural Engineering in Milwaukee.
"What I find most intriguing is this is a living wall," Burt told Wetzel. "We can continue to add stones to it. The wall will continue to grow. It's not a one-time wall. It's a forever wall."
He concluded his conversation with Wetzel by telling him it was an honor to work with fellow veterans this year as well as last summer, not only to help make the trail and the wall realities but to also help those veterans "learn life skills so they can go out and earn a wage for their family."
There was one last thing Burt told Wetzel as to why he was honored to be as involved with the project as he was.
"To represent you and all veterans," he said.
'I hauled fuel'
Mike Burt is a 15-year veteran of service in the U.S. armed forces, beginning with a stint as an active duty soldier where he became a heavy equipment operator.
He later transferred to the Army Reserve.
On his deployment to Iraq in 2004, he was a convoy commander as part of an Illinois Army Reserve transportation unit based for that deployment at what was known as Logistical Support Area Anaconda, which had been the Iraqi Air Force's Al-Bakr Air Base before the invasion of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003.
"I hauled fuel," he said. "We ran fuel to Al Assad in western Iraq."
The April 2004 ambush Burt mentioned to Wetzel was part of insurgent attacks across Iraq that Easter weekend, the most well-known culminating in what would become the first battle of Falujah.
"We were ambushed on Good Friday," Burt said, adding there were three soldiers lost that day along with six truck drivers for civilian contractor Kellog-Brown and Root.
Burt said after completion of "Gary Wetzel Way" in 2016, the idea for using bigger boulders to stand in front of part of the wall was for it to represent a revetment.
"It's the oldest form of defensive position," he said.
Burt then expanded on what he had earlier been talking to Wetzel about as far as the wall's meaning from that standpoint.
"It's significant because as a veteran comes home, he or she needs a safe place," he said. "This trail is a safe place so it represented that."
Burt said when the idea for the wall came along, French - the architect - picked up on that theme.
"He came up with the concept of this transition," he said. "When you come out of military service, whether it's combat or peacetime, the hardest turn you take is that first turn. You bring pieces of yourself and pieces of your service along with you as you continue to build your life. That's signified by the Gabion baskets as you get into the block ... you get a little hitch in your life and then get back to the Gabion baskets and you always make a couple more bends until you end up in your final wherever."
Gabion baskets are used in many situations including the stabilization of earth movement and erosion, river control, reservoirs, canal refurbishment, landscaping and retaining walls.
Here, they signify holding something else together.
Burt said once French explained the concept, he "fell in love with it right away."
"I understood it because he understood me," he said. "He understood what we started here with the trail. All the natural material used is from on site. We had to go to the sand pit in back and mine it out. It's also significant because it was just below the surface, like many of the qualities that we bring from military service. Those stones were just below the surface and just needed to be brought forward and put in their place."
New Legion post
Burt said something else grew out of the effort to build the trail at Camp American Legion last year - a new American Legion post.
"American Legion Post 139," he said. "I happen to be the post commander. This is where it started."
Burt said the idea for that came about as preparations were being made for the trail dedication last year.
"Someone said, 'Hey, how about you start your own American Legion post?'" he said. "I was like, 'Sure. Like that'll ever happen.'"
Today, the Coloma-based American Legion Post 139, a closed post, is also a statewide.
"Closed post" means a person has to be an operating engineer, the spouse of an operating engineer and/or a veteran.
The statewide designation, Burt said, means anyone in the state of Wisconsin meeting the qualifications for membership in the post may do so.
"You can draw a circle, take your hand and draw a circle over the map of Wisconsin, and we've got members from all over the state," he said. "People who maybe didn't think they fit into a regular post. Quite a few of our members are Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf War veterans. We have a lot of younger veterans."
Burt said it is a different type of American Legion post.
"There are a lot of obstacles in living the life we do," he said. "So, when people need a place just to be, that's what our post represents."
Before Burt's 2004 Iraq deployment, he'd been to Southwest Asia at least once before during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
He comes from a family of veterans.
"I'm the spouse of a veteran, the brother of a veteran, the parent of a veteran," Burt said. "I was active duty and then Reserve. I kind of feel I can bring that glue together so that when our younger veterans come to our post, you don't have to speak to speak, you don't have to decipher anything. Just talk. Just feel. Just be. That's really what knits our post together. We are there for the veteran. We just happen to be tradesmen who belong to this group."
Being there for the veteran is also something very important to not only Burt but his wife, Odette.
Also serving in the Army Reserve in the early stages of the Iraq war, Burt said he and his wife received their deployment orders and letters the same day.
"She went to a unit in Ohio," he said. "We were not together. Point six percent of veterans are married to each other. What are the chances you both get your deployment letter the same day? So, we went to two different places at the same time."
Burt said there were challenges to overcome that.
"I'm not saying I'm an expert, but I have my viewpoint and I try to lend understanding to that and be a resource, if I can. Or be a resource to a resource and point people in the direction."
Odette is now a surgical nurse at the Green Bay Veterans Administration facility.
"Odette also comes from a family full of veterans and finds her work at the VA rewarding in that she is able to impact veterans' quality of life and ensure the quality of care veterans under her watch get is only the best," he said. "She is first and foremost a patients' advocate, but is even more so an advocate for every veteran that comes within arms' reach of her care."
'The war finally got him'
Through it all, what Burt said touches home for him is in his early years as an apprentice, he knew a veteran who had been a sniper in Vietnam.
"A few years later, the war finally got him," he said. "He never really came home. A good friend I deployed with in Desert Storm, I found out about six months after I'd left the service that he went home but was never really 'home,' either."
Burt started to talk about a soldier he deployed with to Iraq in 2004 but paused as he got emotional.
"We had the same thing happen to someone else," he said.
Burt paused again, still filled with emotion, and looked at the wall.
"They're all here," he said.
Brian Jopek may be reached via email at email@example.com