Keeley Frank drew back a cloth, revealing a 12-foot-long sign in memory of her son, “Sgt. Kevin. A. Gilbertson Memorial Bridge.”
“He was my hero,” she said of her only biological child. “It’s a special occasion and I am very happy to have this bridge dedicated to honor him. It’s a lot to take in.”
Keeley is married to Randy Frank, 4th District commander in the Department of Kansas. Randy Frank spearheaded the efforts with state lawmakers, Bridges for the Fallen and others that culminated in the dedication ceremony on Aug. 3 in Arkansas City, Kan.
Soon the Kansas Department of Transportation will place a memorial sign on both sides of the South Summit bridge, on U.S. 77 over the Arkansas River on the south side of Arkansas City, near the border with Oklahoma. Once the signs are in place, Frank wants them to serve as reminders to motorists passing through.
“I want them to think about all fallen soldiers, and the ones still out there fighting for our freedoms,” he said. “There are such a few number of people in our country who stand up for everybody. It’s not just Kevin, it’s about everyone.”
Gilbertson is buried in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he was raised. The Franks moved to Arkansas City, which is why the highway bridge there was selected for the designation. “I wanted to do something special for him because I can’t get back to the cemetery all the time. So I have this and it will be joyous,” his mother said.
American Legion Family members from around Kansas, a delegation from Fort Riley and others were among the more than 150 people who turned out for the dedication
“The American Legion is very good about honoring our fallen soldiers,” Randy Frank said. “They don’t want them to be forgotten. They continue to talk about them. They paid a price that the rest of us didn’t.”
Department of Kansas Commander Chuck Shoemaker said that the ceremony reflects the organization’s values of remembrance.
“We want to support them in their loss and we are extremely honored to be here to be able to do that,” said Shoemaker, a member of Post 327 in Kansas City. “People going over this bridge will be able to reflect on the veterans who have sacrificed and given so much to this country.”
Gilbertson, 24, was on his second tour when he was shot Aug. 29, 2007, by insurgents in Ramadi, Iraq. He was transported to Landstuhl, Germany, where he died of his wounds two days later.
Maj. Nate Strickland was Gilbertson’s platoon leader with the 1st Division, Charlie Company in Iraq.
Strickland joked that Gilbertson would not be in favor of the bridge’s location because “it didn’t have a gym, a bar, or a Popeye’s available.” The bridge, however, did make a metaphor for Gilbertson’s life, Strickland said.
“His life was a bridge between the past and the present, the living and the departed, those at home and those serving abroad,” Strickland said. “The platoon we were in was an island of misfit toys. But Kevin was the rock on which that platoon was built. He was a solid, dependable Midwestern guy.”
Strickland shared the story of one time when Gilbertson sat down with a soldier who was struggling and found out he had a fourth-grade reading level. Gilbertson worked with the soldier to help him improve. “He was about trying to build them up and make them better,” Strickland said. “It was a joy to be around someone who loved being a soldier.”
Kansas state Sens. Kevin Braun and Larry Alley worked to get approval for the bridge dedication.
When Braun heard Keeley testify at a Transportation Committee hearing, urging approval for the dedication, it struck a chord.
“She spoke about having lost her son Kevin in 2007. For me, I reflected back because I was in Iraq in 2006,” said Braun, who served in the Kansas Army National Guard and is a member of The American Legion. “There are lots of serious transportation issues but this one struck me in a serious way. I could think about my mother coming in front of the committee with a story about losing me in Iraq.”
Col. Tom Murtha, commander of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, noted the importance of honoring the fallen. For example, he said, the entrance into brigade headquarters is lined with photographs and biographies of the 61 brigade soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in Iraq.
“It is the first thing you see when you walk into headquarters,” he said. “It is a simple memorial but important.”
Murtha and others from Fort Riley made the 150-mile trip to honor Gilbertson and his family.
“We continue to honor our commitments to our Gold Star Families,” Murtha said. “it is a bond that I am privileged to maintain for our fallen soldiers and their families. It remains to us, a sacred trust. We will never forget their service. We will never forget their sacrifice. This memorial to Kevin will be a constant reminder to all who pass over it that he was one of our heroes who served his nation with honor and never came home to enjoy the blessings of liberty that he helped preserve.”
Throughout the hour-long ceremony, family members, servicemembers and friends shared memories of Gilbertson. He was fun-loving. He was athletic. He was inquisitive.
“He liked to know how things worked,” Keeley said. “When he was 8 and 9 years old, he would take apart the Matchbox cars and figure out how the wheels turned, or the doors opened. He was that kind of kid. Later he would race remote control cars. He was awesome. I just want everyone to remember him.”