BELDING — Murl “Red” Sanders wasn’t expecting much for his his birthday this year.
The Korean War veteran and Greenville resident has resided at Metron of Greenville in extended care since last October after health complications resulted in the amputation of his left leg from the knee down.
But on Friday, on his 84th birthday, Sanders was given a gift he found difficult to express in words.
Belding resident and Vietnam War veteran Denny Craycraft had visited Sanders days earlier and informed him of the new veterans park in Belding. He described the sight, showed him pictures and informed him that plans have been set in motion to erect a Korean War monument to be unveiled on Veterans Day.
Looking down at his amputated leg, sitting in his wheelchair, knowing that he would likely only see the park in pictures, Sanders thanked Craycraft for sharing the vision with him.
But Craycraft wasn’t satisfied.
“We’ll get you there, don’t you worry,” Craycraft said.
On Friday, with Sanders dressed in red, white and blue, wearing the hat of his late son Darrell Sanders, who fought in the Persian Gulf War as a Navy Seal and later died in 2005, he was ready for a birthday celebration in Belding.
Thanks to the public transportation systems in both Greenville and Belding, Sanders spent his birthday at a place he thought he’d only see in pictures. He was picked up by the Greenville Transit System, which took him as far as Oakwood Christian Reformed Church on M-91 near the county line between Montcalm and Ionia counties. From there, he was transported the rest of the way by the Belding Dial-A-Ride program.
Neither service charged Sanders for the rides.
When Sanders arrived, Craycraft greeted him by pushing his wheelchair up to the sight of the Belding Freedom Wall.
“Oh my goodness, it’s unbelievable!” Sanders exclaimed as his eyes began to water. “I can’t express it, it’s just wonderful. For them to build this, so many volunteers, it’s just beautiful. I don’t know how they’ve done it, but it’s wonderful.”
Sanders served in the U.S. Army fighting in the Korean War from 1952 to 1954 as a military police officer. Sitting in the new park and knowing that a monument dedicated to the veterans he served with is coming, Sanders said he hopes to be able to return to pay his respects once the monument stands.
“The way they’ve set this up for our Korean War veterans, it’s just incredible. So many of us are gone,” he said. “You don’t believe something like this can happen. You can visualize it, but for people to volunteer and make it happen, it’s hard to believe. Then you get here and it’s just beautiful.”
Sanders’ son, Dan Sanders, helped Craycraft arrange the transportation to get his father to the park.
“He’s having a good time and that’s what it’s all about,” Dan Sanders said. “He’s 84 years old and a lot of times veterans don’t make it that far. We’re just enjoying it while we can.”
Dan Sanders said he was especially happy to see a smile on his father’s face as he took in the memorial because of the park’s purpose of honoring all veterans, including Korean War veterans.
“The Korean War, those soldiers did not get the greetings that soldiers get now when they come home,” he said. “Now they are getting what they should have received long ago.”
He added that he was especially grateful for the drivers who transported his father and refused to accept payment.
“We sometimes ask people to do things out of gratitude and they didn’t charge a dime,” he said. “Both Greenville and Belding came together, they collaborated so well.”
Craycraft, who spearheaded the effort to build a veterans park more than two years ago, is used to watching Belding residents and visitors from out of town visit the park since its opening on Memorial Day, but said Sanders’ birthday was special. Craycraft said he moves forward with his plans with one goal in mind — to honor the veterans before they’re gone.
“It makes you feel that all the work that you do is for a purpose,” Craycraft said. “Just like when we tried and succeeded in getting the Freedom Wall up before we lost all of our World War II veterans.”
Craycraft said there will be no doubt that the new Korean monument, with granite coming from India and inscribing work being done in Grand Rapids, will be unveiled on Veterans Day.
“We’re losing our Korean veterans as quickly as our World War II veterans,” he said. “Now the fact that we’re going into phase II with the Korean Monument, I just want to get the word out so they can be here on the 11th of November.”
Before Sanders could leave, Craycraft surprised him with one last gift, a birthday cake to take back to Greenville with him.
“Now I have something to share with the nurses,” said Sanders with a smile.