Today is Veteran’s Day in the U.S. In honor of the holiday I want to tell you of a veteran-themed pilgrimage spot in Iowa—well, to be more precise, make that 26 pilgrimage spots, with the number rising each year.
The story begins in a movie theater in 1999, when Bubba Sorensen, an art and design major at Iowa State University, was watching the movie Saving Private Ryan. Viewing the World War II tale of heroism and tragedy made him want to do something to honor veterans himself. He remembered that near his home in southwest Iowa there was a larger boulder that was typically covered with graffiti. Sorensen decided he would paint the rock with a patriotic mural honoring veterans (though its rough and uneven surface was hardly the best canvas for a work of art).
The local response was immediate and enthusiastic. People loved the decorated boulder, which was dubbed The Freedom Rock. As its popularity grew, Sorensen was asked to do similar projects in other places.
Today Sorensen mural work has become a full-time job. While he does a variety of projects, his patriotic murals on rocks have become his signature genre. His goal is to paint a Freedom Rock in each of Iowa’s 99 counties. So far he’s completed 23, with another 60 counties in line. “I figure it will take me till about 2023 to get all 99 counties done,” he says.
As word has spread of his efforts, veterans have flocked to support him, sometimes in unusual ways. “I remember I was working on repainting the original Freedom Rock in 2006, and a group of guys happened to drive by on their way to Washington, D.C.,” he says. “They were going to scatter the ashes of a friend at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. When they saw what I was doing, they asked if I would mix some of the ashes in with my paint. Since then, I’ve gotten this request pretty frequently. Quite a few of the rocks include ashes from veterans.”
While Sorensen repaints the original Freedom Rock each year for free, he creates other patriotic murals on commission. Many of the Freedom Rocks are located in out-of-the-way corners of the state, making it a bit of a treasure hunt to find them. “I go with whoever asks me first in a county,” he says. “Sometimes it’s in the center of a town, and sometimes it’s out in the country.”
As I talked to Sorensen, it was clear that his mural work has become both a career and a calling for him. “This has taken off in ways I’d never dreamed of when I started,” he says. “I have three goals: to honor veterans, to promote Iowa tourism, and feed my family. So far I’ve been able to do all three.”
Sorensen’s murals around the state depict images from all of the nation’s wars, from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan and Iraq. The people who are featured are typically veterans from the surrounding area who have been killed in conflict.
It was a foggy, cool morning when I visited the original Freedom Rock. I was moved to see the tokens that have been left on a nearby telephone pole (for holy sites appear wherever there is need of them). Pinned to the pole were flags, medals, pictures, and patches representing various military units. And in the guest book kept in a nearby kiosk were signatures of people from around the country who had visited the rock. “The original Freedom Rock is getting more visitors every year,” says Sorensen. “We’ve even had people from France, China and Kenya. I enjoy visiting with people while I paint. You never know who’s going to show up.”
I love this story. Bubba Sorensen didn’t set out to make a career for himself. He certainly isn’t getting rich painting rocks in rural parts of Iowa. But he is making a living honoring those who often get forgotten except for Veterans Day. And once he’s finished each rock, it becomes a new shrine for those who were killed in close-to-home battlefields such as Yorktown, Shiloh and Gettysburg, or in far away places like Verdun, Dunkirk, Midway, Inchon, Xuan Loc, Kandahar, and Fallujah. They stand as sentinels, silently reminding us of those who gave their lives in service to their country.
See The Freedom Rock for information on where Bubba Sorensen’s murals are located. The original Freedom Rock is on Highway 25 near the small town of Menlo, Iowa (one mile south of exit 86 on I-80).