BELDING — Korean War veteran Lawrence Riley was in his early 20’s when he served with the Seventh Calvary Armory more than 6,500 miles away from his hometown of Ionia.
He was one of many area veterans who left the comfort of home to fight overseas, to sacrifice more than anyone could ask so Americans could remain safe at home on U.S. soil.
But after serving his country an entire world away, in which he was awarded a purple heart after suffering an injury from a mortar blast, there were moments where he felt unappreciated, as if no one realized the sacrifices that he and his military brothers had undertaken to continue to keep their country safe.
It was a war that would soon be labeled as “The Forgotten War,” and the pain of being improperly viewed as a footnote in history would continue to build for more than 60 years.
But on Monday, that pain that Riley, now 85, and so many other Korean War Veterans have experienced, was set to rest for an evening.
At the Belding Veterans Park on Depot Street, on Veterans Day, the celebration of a new monument belonged solely to them.
Riley, along with nine other area Korean War veterans, helped to unveil the new Korean War monument which will permanently reside alongside other war monuments at the park.
At a loss for words, a single tear rolled down Riley’s cheek as he gazed upon the monument dedicated to the efforts of he and his fellow military brothers.
“We were forgotten,” he managed to say. “But it’s good to see that someone has remembered our war. It means a lot.”
Cut into the shape of the Korean peninsula, with a soldier lasered into the stone and the date of the war inscribed as well, the monument left a crowd of residents and supporters in awe.
Belding resident Denny Craycraft has continued to lead the effort to build up the park, which has stood for just one year but now features three separate monuments.
“We’re walking into another chapter of history in this town, in this community,” Craycraft said. “A simple year ago a dream came true with the World War II monument. We got that accomplished. The big word is ‘we.’ It would not have happened without this community.”
Craycraft has made it a goal to continue to construct monuments at the new park to represent every branch of the military and every war that has been fought by U.S. veterans.
Craycraft, a Vietnam War veteran himself, admitted that he knew very little about the history of the Korean War before beginning his quest to bring the monument to Belding.
“I knew it was called the Forgotten War,” he said. “Little did I know what those guys went through. They had their butts handed to them.”
According to Craycraft, 40 percent of the casualties during the three years of war happened within the first six months of that war.
Ten soldiers from Montcalm County and five from Ionia County perished while fighting in the Korean War.
“They beat us down, but the tenacity of the American soldier got back up off their knees and kicked their ass.” Craycraft said. “For every Korean War veteran that you see today, you should be very, very proud.”
Belding Mayor Ron Gunderson thanked everyone in attendance for taking the time to brave the 20-degree temperatures to celebrate the new monument together.
He spoke directly to all the veterans who attended Monday’s celebration.
“I can’t say enough for what you’ve done and how things have changed because you supported the people here in the United States,”
Gunderson said. “For all you’ve done and continue to do, thank you.”
Gunderson painted a picture of younger generations of children walking through the memorial in the future and reading the names of veterans inscribed on the hundreds of bricks layered on the surface of the park, possibly some who they may have known.
“You might hear them say, ‘I remember that person, they lived next door to me.’” he said.
Gunderson said the city will continue to support the expansion of the park as it grows alongside the future bike trail that will be completed next summer.
Craycraft also took a moment to thank the Blue Star Mothers organization for their continued support over the years.
Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, said she was truly amazed at how the park has continued to take shape in Belding.
“Truly, we have some real gems in this area,” Emmons said. “This is just a real asset and we are so grateful of everyone in the greater area, in both Montcalm and Ionia, to show that we do care. That willingness of people to take their own time and money and invest to show gratitude, respect and honor to those who we owe a debt that we can never pay. I’m privileged to be able to be here and just say thank you.”
The monument, carved from granite rock imported from India, was a year in the making.
At a cost of $7,600, the rock was engraved by Patten Monument out of Comstock Park.
As with a previous monument installed at the park, the owners have graciously waited to accept payment until the entire amount is raised.
According to Craycraft, $3,800 still remains to pay for the monument.
Once the monument has been paid for, Craycraft said he will shift his focus into helping to build a World War I monument, which he hopes to unveil no later than Veterans Day of next year.
“We’re going to be a mini Washington D.C., because of the heart of these communities, Belding, Ionia and Greenville, coming together,” Craycraft said. “But it’s not just one person who gets it done. I have a whole committee and every one of them are very, very intricate as to what happens to help this program come through.”
At the conclusion of the celebration, spectators and veterans shifted out of the cold and into the VFW building for musical entertainment provided by the Ionia Area Community Band, as well as a dinner.
For more information or to donate, Craycraft can be reached at (616) 550-6990.