The apparent theft of an M-16 rifle and helmet from a West Richland memorial has outraged Mid-Columbia veterans.
Dan Richey, a member of Combat Veterans International Chapter 3 who lives around the corner from Flat Top Park, noticed early last month that the rifle and helmet were missing from the top of the 2 rock they had been perched on for more than 12 years.
The bronze boots at the base of the sculpture also were damaged.
Richey said he checks The Final Tribute veterans memorial on his regular walks to the park, where he also monitors the memorial's nearby flags to ensure they're in good flying shape.
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"I'm appalled and dismayed," he said. "I can't believe we have individuals in our neighborhood who would do such a thing."
Richey reported the vandalism to police. West Richland police are investigating the theft, said Sgt. Thomas Grego. Bobby Dale Albers of Kennewick, sergeant at arms for Combat Veterans International Chapter 3, said the theft and damage goes "way beyond vandalism."
"It's disrespect. Complete and utter disrespect," said Albers, whose 16 years in the Army included two years in Vietnam. "It's just cruel and I don't know if there's a word I can use."
The memorial was dedicated Nov. 10, 2001. The memorial depicted an inverted rifle placed in the ground by its bayonet, with a real World War II helmet attached to the top of the rifle. With the boots, the sculpture resembled a temporary grave marker for a fallen soldier.
A marker on the stone acknowledges several civic groups and businesses that helped out on the project. Albers said the memorial was the brainchild of the late Paul Davis, the founder of Combat Veterans International Chapter 3. Davis died in 2003 at age 56.
The veterans group and the West Richland Chamber of Commerce raised money for the memorial, Albers said. Pat Artz of Benton City put the work together, while others helped bring the heavy stone into the park.
The plaque contains the inscription, "Freedom is not Free."
To Joe Winters, a member of American Legion Post 34 in Pasco, the vandalism is a hate crime. "That kind of damage, it's hard to believe kids would do something like that, but you never know," he said.
It reminds the veterans who spoke to the Herald about the damage done in 2004 to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial near the cable bridge in Kennewick, they said.
Darvin Eugene Grigg admitted to driving his Oldsmobile Cutlass three times into the memorial at the base of the cable bridge. The monument's granite marker, which was inscribed with the names of 61 Mid-Columbians killed in the Vietnam War, was damaged beyond repair. Its fencing and flag pole were also damaged.
Grigg pleaded guilty in Benton County Superior Court to a reduced charge of third-degree malicious mischief, a misdemeanor. He had been charged with first-degree malicious mischief, but the charge was reduced with agreement from some Tri-City veterans in consideration of Grigg's mental health issues. He served 104 days in jail.
"We got him and we're going to get this guy," Albers said of the person who damaged the West Richland memorial.
Flat Top Park is important to veterans because it is the site of the annual Time of Remembrance ceremony, which honors service members from Washington, Oregon and Idaho who died overseas, Richey said.
Richey, a Navy veteran, has fought efforts to develop the park.
"It's a very emotional, important occasion for people around the Northwest who have lost family members in combat," he said of the event.
The combat veterans look to repair or replace the damaged monument, Richey said. They might design it to be more resistant to vandals.
"It's very somber, it's very well done," he said. "It's just how do you make something jerk-proof, vandal-proof? That's hard to do."
Anyone with information about the vandalism can contact West Richland police at 967-3425.
w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; email@example.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom