Generations past, present and future came together to present what was called the “crowning jewel” of Soldotna Creek Park in an Independence Day celebration Saturday.
At the end of it all, a gleaming, 5-foot-tall, Iron Mike statue stood facing the Kenai River with Alaska, American and POW/MIA flags flapping in the blue skies behind the paratrooper. The statue sat on a 2 1/2-foot pedestal with one side each for Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.
David Carey, who serves on the Soldotna City Council and is a former mayor of Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, said Iron Mike is modeled on a statue at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which depicts a paratrooper jumping into battle.
Carey said there are similar statues around the country. Although this statue is of Army origin, Carey said it is meant to honor more than those in the Army.
“It says we honor all veterans,” Carey said.
The statue was unveiled in an hourlong ceremony. With such Fourth of July standards such as the parade in the city of Kenai and Seward’s Mount Marathon Race called off due to the new coronavirus pandemic, the unveiling stood as one of the few official holiday events on the Kenai Peninsula.
Carey thanked the city of Soldotna for letting the event go forward. Signs and spaced-out chairs encouraged social distancing, while Carey said masks were available for anyone who wanted one.
For Carey, the tale of how Iron Mike came to be sitting in Soldotna is a tale of generations.
“It was an old man asking to honor veterans and a young boy committed himself to honoring veterans,” he said.
Five years ago, Carey said Herb Stettler asked Carey to raise funds for an Iron Mike statute. Stettler, 88, of Kasilof is a veteran who died Dec. 11, 2019. Carey said Stettler did many things for veterans, including chopping wood, collecting roadkill and transporting veterans to Anchorage for medical care.
“I know he’s here today,” said Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, at Saturday’s ceremony during a reading of a Legislature proclamation to honor Stettler. “It was his vision.”
Originally, Carey was told the statue would cost $48,000. Carey committed to raise the funds through calls and letters to organizations like American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Elks and Pioneers of Alaska. He said he wanted a community effort, intentionally leaving out heavy hitters like the oil companies.
The project then got a big boost from Haedyn Horstman, then a third-grade student at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary and now a soon-to-be eighth grader at Skyview Middle School.
Horstman, the son of Alan and Julia of Soldotna, was hanging out with his friend Brooke Walters. He went into her house and saw a miniature Iron Mike owned by Brooke’s dad, George Walters.
Horstman said he was immediately taken by the statue and asked George about it. He found out about the fundraising effort and committed to help.
Alan said his son spent several hundred hours selling lemonade at various events. Haedyn eventually raised $7,000 for the project. He got the honor of unveiling the statue Saturday.
“He deserves it,” Carey said. “I’m so appreciative. It’s great to get young people involved.”
About 2 1/2 years ago, Carey said the price of the statue went from $48,000 to $57,000. Carey kept writing letters. He reached the goal shortly after Stettler died.
Micciche, a former mayor of Soldotna and a driving force of Soldotna Creek Park, said 1,500 Soldotna residents came together to say what they wanted in the park when it was first conceived. One common theme was a veteran presence at the entrance to the park.
“It really is the crowning jewel of the park,” Micciche said of Iron Mike. “I’m so grateful to be here today.”
Current Soldotna mayor Pete Sprague also pointed out that the statue fits into Soldotna’s history. The city was settled post-World War II by homesteaders. Some of them were veteran homesteaders, like the Mullens and Farnsworths.
Carey’s family arrived in 1961, shortly after the city of Soldotna incorporated in 1960. He said part of Soldotna Creek Park is part of the homestead of Frank and Marge Mullen. Marge still lives on the homestead and turned 100 on June 25.
“I think we have the most beautiful park in the state,” Carey said. “I’m biased. I’ll be real clear on that.”
In the last year, Carey had the money for the statue and went through veteran Ryan Bandy of Alaska Bronze and Granite in Girdwood to get Iron Mike made and delivered.
Bandy, a veteran of the Iraq War, said the project meant a lot to him.
“It’s probably the best project our company will ever be a part of,” Bandy said as the statue stood in the sun behind him. “It’s hard to find the words.”
The ceremony also included Jeanette Pietro of the Quilts of Valor Foundation awarding quilts to veterans Robert Robertson, of Soldotna, and Frank Lane, of Kenai.