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The Man Who Paints Rocks For Our Veterans

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 5, 2023 3:01 am

The Man Who Paints Rocks For Our Veterans

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 5, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Ray “Bubba” Sorensen tells the story of his “Freedom Rocks” project in Iowa – his painted rocks are in all of the 99 counties in the Hawkeye State.

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Our American Stories
Lee Habeeb

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So I was born in Creston, Iowa, and I grew up in the little town of Fontenelle, Iowa. About 600 people played about every sport and just had kind of your normal generic high school or small town upbringing before technology really hit, I guess. So my uncle Ted served in Vietnam as a Navy CB. And, you know, most most of the country knows that, you know, our Vietnam veterans weren't treated very well when they returned back from service and they came home to a to a very ungrateful nation. And, you know, some were spat on, some were, you know, protested as they got off buses and planes. And a lot of those guys kind of hid their service or were ashamed of their service. And my mom told me about all that.

And, you know, that never sat well with me. And then, of course, like as I was growing up, movies like Rambo, TV shows like Tour of Duty, old old shows, World War Two dramas like Combat. My mom would watch those with me. And although, you know, they were fictional, they were based on actual narratives of Vietnam veterans, World War Two veterans. So my mom was able to kind of illustrate to me the service and sacrifice of all these men and women, how much especially our Korean War, which is a forgotten war, and our Vietnam veterans were treated when they came back. And that just really stuck with me, you know, and as I grew up, I started to, I guess, parallel stories here, become interested in art. Like I said, I had a love for football.

So a lot of my artwork is patriotic or it was very much sports based. So, you know, I kind of just started, I guess, on this diverging course of my love for veterans and, you know, my patriotism growing and me growing as an artist just kind of set me on this course to I wanted to say thank you to our veterans. But the birth of Ray's ultimate idea to say thank you happened in a movie theater. What the ultimate spark was, as I was sitting in a movie theater, watching the movie Saving Private Ryan. And, you know, if you've seen that movie, you know, the first half hour, you know, our men and you could even say, boy, some of them were 17, 16, 17, 18 years old, are literally storming the beaches of Normandy, spilling their guts for our country. And it was just so realistic. So in your face of, you know, what, maybe a glimpse of what war was like.

And I just left the theater saying I've got to find a way to say thank you to all our men and women that serve this country. And that was kind of the birth of the Freedom Rock. When I had the idea to paint the very first Freedom Rock, I thought, where am I going to put this mural where, you know, I have no no experience as a mural artist.

So for me, I wasn't going to tap tap some business owner on the shoulder and say, hey, can I I have no experience at all. Can I paint the side of your wall? So, you know, my my thoughts turn to the rock out there. The first rock was known as just the rock, the rock. It sits next to a rock quarry. And, you know, they're mining, you know, gravel and limestone and things out of this quarry. And they hit this huge granite boulder. So they just left it there as a marker to the entrance to the quarry.

And kids started graffitiing it and started tagging it with, you know, all sorts of stuff. You know, I think there's been marriage proposals. There have been there was a giant Eminem at once. There were there were I think one.

I have one of the pictures of one of the funnier ones was Santa Claus with his pants down moon in the traffic around Christmas. And that's just kind of how it went. And I thought, hey, for Memorial Day, I'm going to go out there. I'm going to throw my paint on there, say thank you to the veterans. And, you know, my thought was it's going to get painted over and be long forgotten.

You know, it was just going to be my one time to say thank you. And then it was going to continue to be graffitied through the years. I grabbed all the paint I could. What I thought was outdoor paint. I mixed oil and acrylic, which is a huge no-no in the art world. I had no idea what I was doing, but I was going to kind of teach myself how to paint a mural. And so that was that was the start of it. And I just I was bound and determined to say thank you to these veterans. And, you know, my mom and dad always tell this little side story. I'm a college student, so I'm broke. And I was like, Mom, can you buy the paint for this rock?

I want to say thank you to our veterans. And she called Dad and she was like, I don't he wants to go paint that large boulder north of town. You know, do I buy the paint?

It's going to be 50 bucks. And Dad was like, do it. Yeah, it sounds like a heck of a project. And so they kind of both take credit for, you know, buying the first paint for the original Freedom Rock. And that's how it was born. I painted thank you, veterans, for our freedom in the flag raising at Iwo Jima, because that is my all time favorite picture.

And it happened exactly like I thought. I painted it, lasted for a few months. Thank you to the veterans. Somebody painted over it. Fine.

Moving on. But the thing is, is Memorial Day came around again and some local veterans asked, hey, will you go out there and paint that same thing that you did last year for us? And I thought, you know what?

I'm going to do one better. And so I went out there and I painted Lee Teeter's reflections, or at least a version of it, you know, painting it on a rock. And like I said, as a as a budding mural artist, I still have a lot to learn. But I gave a shot at that famous Reflections Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall painting and some other scenes. And that ended up lasting for an entire year, which was unheard of with the rock. It always got painted over within a month or two, but nobody touched that one.

And so it lasted a year. And that was like around the town, around the Derry County where the rock was famous. Everybody was like, oh, my God, nobody's painted over the rock.

What's going to happen? Nobody painted over the rock. We're just leaving this how it is. And instead of doing that, I thought, well, I don't want to kill the spirit of the rock changing.

You know, people kind of got used to it having different artwork on it. So I thought, well, I'll go out there and I'll paint another different scene thanking our veterans. And so that's kind of what snowballed it into the annual tradition of, you know, I go out there at the start of May and I allow myself the month of May. I finish my new artwork thanking our veterans.

And I'm always done by Memorial Day, no matter what. So some years get more detail than others, just depending on weather and time and how many visitors I get. And that's that's kind of the whole story of how the rock became, I guess, my canvas of choice and and and how I've spent the past 22 years repainting it every Memorial Day. And since then, Ray's project has expanded beyond the original rock. It's a much, much larger operation now because of some interesting Iowan inspiration. I started the what's known as the Freedom Rock tour. I had the idea to try and paint a smaller version of the original Freedom Rock in every single one of Iowa's 99 counties. I don't know if you know politics wise, we have a very famous senator from Iowa, Chuck Grassley.

He's always known for doing what's called the full Grassley. And that means, you know, visiting every single Iowa county, you know, every time he runs for reelection. And I thought, you know, how neat of an idea is that to be able to go to each one of our 99 counties? And, you know, how cool would it be as an artist to have a piece of artwork in all of Iowa's 99 counties?

And so that's kind of where it was born. And my first idea was to try and do one in all 50 states and my wife was like, hey, let's scale it back a little bit and see, you know, let's keep you closer to home and keep you in state. And so we kind of talked it over and we decided to do the one in every county in Iowa. And when we announced it, I thought, you know, there's only going to be a few people that get it. Or, you know, I was like, I told my wife, I was like, if we book 10 in the first year, we'll be lucky because I just didn't figure people would, you know, jump on it that quickly. We ended up booking 60 of the Iowa counties in the first year and then subsequently booked all the counties in the few years after that and started off.

And I just finished a week or two ago, I finished the 95th out of 99 counties in Iowa. And you're listening to Ray Bubba Sorensen tell his story of the Freedom Rocks in Iowa. And it took Saving Private Ryan all to just act as a catalyst for this endeavor. The Freedom Rocks.

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Take it away, Ray. I have a few really special stories that kind of stick out. Probably the very first one is, you know, goes with the guy that I call the sergeant in arms of the rock now. He's kind of been a caretaker of the flags out there and just kind of overall maintenance of what's going on with the grounds around it. He's a Vietnam veteran and he was driving semi-truck for one of the local companies in town and I just started painting the one, the very first one. And I started painting and I had the flag raising done.

I think I was working on the lettering. He's coming down this large hill coming towards the rock and he slams on the brakes of the semi-truck and pulls over and I thought to myself, oh crap, I'm in trouble for painting this rock. And I kept telling myself, like, I had called the quarry and asked permission.

I have every right to be here and paint this. You know, this guy gets out of the truck and he almost looks angry and he's like, are you the one painting this? And I was like, yes.

And I was like, sweating a little bit. And he was like, I just want to say thank you. He's like, us Vietnam veterans didn't get a very good welcome home and I appreciate, you know, people when they do stuff like this for our veterans. And so it's become kind of a lifelong friendship from there on out.

For the past 22 years, he's kind of helped me keep an eye on the rock and keep the flags up and flying. And so that was that was one of the memorable ones. Another one, you know, a few years into painting it, I had a young man. And I say young man because I think he was younger than me even at the time.

And I was fairly young. He had just gotten back from overseas and he came out and very polite, you know, said appreciated my work as a veteran. He also appreciated how quiet it was when it wasn't a patriotic holiday. Like he didn't he didn't come out to the rock on the Memorial Day as the Fourth of July and things like that.

He always came out on a non holiday to sit and reflect. And he also said that, like he was had had he told me he's like, I had suicidal thoughts. I wasn't feeling very good about myself or my service. I came out here. I sat on this little rock and I stared at your rock. And he goes, it just changed my whole perspective.

He goes, I don't want to get all mushy about it. I just wanted to be I wanted to tell you that. And I wanted to tell you how much it meant to me. And then he got up and left. And I thought, wow, that's that was powerful.

And that's one. Stories like that are one of the many reasons people always ask, why do you continue to do this? Why do you continue to paint for our veterans? And it's veterans like that that I don't know that I may be affecting in a positive way. And I hope I am.

I hope it's landing that way with all of them, whether I get to talk to them or not. I could tell my wife and I've told my parents before, if I if I get to save one veteran or if I've I've affected somebody like that, that's that's good enough for me. Ray also creates his murals with more than just paint. I've actually painted the remains or cremains of many veterans on the rock or mixed them with the paint and painted them on there.

So at the current, I'm around one hundred and twenty different Vietnam veterans. Ashes are mixed into the green paint of the helicopter on the north side of the rock. And how that started was some Vietnam veteran bikers that were on their way to the wall in Washington, D.C. for Memorial Day stopped at the rock.

I was painting a tribute to our Vietnam veterans at the time, and they do you know, they absolutely loved it. And they go, hey, can we go get some ashes of our recently fallen Vietnam veteran brothers and sprinkle them here by the rock? And I said, I wish you'd just dump them in my paint can and I'll paint them on the rock because it's so windy out here.

You know, I don't want them to blow away in the wind. And they love that idea. So about seven or eight of them went and got these ashes and they kind of all dumped them into my my paint can.

And I mixed them up and painted it all on these helicopters on the on the north side of the rock. And they loved it. And I thought that was a neat little tribute.

And I thought it was over after that. And then I started getting Vietnam veterans ashes in the mail, started getting them from all over the country. And they came with letters and they came in different little pill boxes and ornate vases and sometimes just Ziploc bags. And they came saying, this is my brother.

He passed away from Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam. Loved your rock, loved your work, wants to have parts of his remains on this rock. Got to the point where I don't think my wife liked to go into the PO box because there was always curmains, you know, waiting for us to. And I just what I did is I collected them each year. I'd let them ride around in the truck with me until it was Memorial Day and I was done with the rock. And they were always my final edition at one o'clock on Memorial Day.

And they still are. So I still collect, you know, our Vietnam veterans who who want to be part of the rock. I collect their ashes and I they all go on.

We we read their names off. We paint them onto the rock and they're there forever. The hard part and how it's gotten harder for me is I've known a lot of these veterans now. I've gotten to know them over the years and they've always said they want their final resting place to be that rock. And then they've they've passed away.

And it's, you know, yeah, I've become friends with these guys and yeah, it gets it gets harder and harder. But I always try and say, you know, it's a it's a unique memorial and kind of a unique place for them to be. And I'm so honored to even be a part of it. One of the guys that was in the Veterans Hospital out in Omaha. His son called me and said, can I bring my dad out to the rock?

He is not in good health. Would you meet us out there? And I said, absolutely. I'll go out there and say hi. I'm in town and went out there and met him and shook his hand and and he had oxygen hooked up to him. And he was like, well, hospital wasn't very crazy about us getting him out here, but he really wanted to see the rock. He wanted to touch the rock. And he'd like to ask you if he can be have his ashes put on the rock. And I said, well, absolutely. But, you know, stick around.

Let's you know, we'd like to see you get better. And what I didn't know was that he was in his final days. And two days later, I got the call that he had passed and his ashes were on the way. And so his family came out and we I believe we didn't do that one on Memorial Day.

I think we did it on like July 4th because they just they wanted to have like more of a private ceremony and have the ashes go on in that way. But I just thought that's it's it's amazing how much the Freedom Rocks message has gotten out there. I'm glad it has. And it's kind of amazing the response and how many veterans want to be a part of it.

And that couldn't can make me happier. I've just I guess I would say I I don't know how to describe it, but I feel very lucky to live in this country. And and there's so many men and women that have fought and died for this country over its many years. And I feel like I owe them at the very least this, if not more.

I feel I feel guilty and spoiled to be able to enjoy such a beautiful country and the freedom to to try and earn to make a living. And and I didn't I wasn't forced to join the service. I wasn't drafted. I didn't join. I'm not a veteran.

And how lucky am I? And that that's my outlook. And that's my outlook every day. I always tell people, like, you know, what are you doing for Memorial Day weekend or this is Memorial Day or Veterans Day? And I'm like, for me, every day is Memorial Day and Veterans Day. It's just that's the way it is with my family.

I've kind of roped them into a lifetime of solitude with me. And our goal is always to thank our veterans, lift our veterans up and do what we can to honor them and say thank you. And a special thanks to Ray Bubba Sorenson for sharing this beautiful story. And thanks, as always, to Monty for doing such a great job on the production.

And what a beautiful thing to do with your life. Ray, go to the freedom rock dot com and donate to the Freedom Rock Foundation to help support the preservation of these rocks. The story of Ray Bubba Sorenson, the story of the Freedom Rock here on Our American Story. State Farm is committed to being your top choice when ensuring the things that matter to you. My cultura podcast host, Dramos, also believes in the power of financial knowledge. That's why he makes sure to share his financial tips on his podcast, Life as a Gringo.

Financial freedom usually means having enough savings, financial investments and cash on hand to afford the kind of life we desire for ourselves and our families. Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there. Learn more at ES State Farm dot com.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-05-05 04:27:03 / 2023-05-05 04:37:21 / 10

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