Paved with courage, sacrifice
It's been almost four years in the making, but all the pieces of the Becker County Veterans Memorial Highway are now linked together.
To celebrate that fact, representatives of several area veterans' groups met with officials from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, and State Rep. Kent Eken. They gathered at a spot on Highway 34 at the east edge of Detroit Lakes to watch the new highway sign being erected on Tuesday.
When the Veterans Highway was first established in March of 2007, and dedicated in May 2007, the 36-mile route stretched from the Otter Tail County Line, where Becker County Road 33 joined with the Otter Tail County Veterans Memorial Highway, and continued its winding path northward on CR 39 and 37 until joining with Clearwater County Road 39 at the county line.
But the portions of state trunk highways 34 and 87, which linked the three segments and the city of Detroit Lakes, were never officially signed as part of the route.
In 2009, Eken helped to sponsor a bill that would officially designate the state roadways as part of the Veterans Memorial Highway route.
However, that bill was attached to the Minnesota Transportation Bill, which passed both the House and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
This year, Eken tried again -- and he and his fellow legislators were successful in getting the bill signed into law by the governor.
"You don't always succeed on the first try," Eken said Tuesday. "Persistence pays off.
"I was glad to do it," he said of his agreement to sponsor the bill - twice.
Eken also noted that the bill wouldn't have come to pass without the grassroots effort of local veterans.
"It was Larry (Hynding, chair of the Veterans Memorial Highway Committee) and the folks here that first brought this idea to us," Eken said. "It really starts at the local level."
He was very happy to be able to be in Detroit Lakes on Tuesday.
"To be able to come here and see it (the highway sign) put up is a special event," he said, adding, "Freedom really isn't free, and these are the folks that pay the price for us. This memorial highway ensures that we don't forget it."
The bill officially became law on Aug. 1 -- just a couple of weeks after the last segment fell into place.
On July 22, the Becker County Board designated the portion of County Road 22 (Washington Avenue) that runs from Highway 34 to Highway 10 in Detroit Lakes as part of the Memorial Highway.
That means the Veterans Memorial Highway will be linked to the new Becker County Veterans Memorial Park when it is completed, hopefully sometime next year. The new park is located just south of Highway 10 at the junction with Washington Avenue.
All segments of the state highways that are part of the Veterans Memorial Highway have now been signed -- thanks to MnDOT.
"They had a couple of segments on the trunk highways that they wanted to have signed, so we obliged," said MnDOT's Merle Early.
"They needed a connection from the memorial highway to the new park, and we were very happy to work with him (Hynding) to get it dedicated and the signs up," Early said, adding, "Larry did all the work, we were just happy to help him out."
"We had to furnish the signs, and the state installed them," Hynding explained.
For his part, Hynding said the most rewarding part of the project has been all the support that it's received.
"We've had a lot of support from the community," he said.
Some of that support came from veterans past and present -- including Major Aaron Krenz of the 2-136th Infantry Combined Arms Battalion.
Krenz explained that part of his battalion's Alpha Company is based out of the National Guard Armory in Detroit Lakes.
"We have been the very fortunate recipients of unbelievable community support," he said. "The veterans who have served before us and the community as a whole have backed our soldiers and our families."
His battalion's support of the project is a way of giving back, Krenz explained.
"This sign can help serve as a simple reminder to everyone who drives down this road and sees that sign, even for an instant... to think of all the veterans, the brave men and women who have served their country, and what they have done for us all," Krenz said.
Hynding said one part of Tuesday's sign installation that was particularly meaningful for him was the fact that several of the servicemen who were there for the occasion had been serving in Iraq at the time the Veterans Memorial Highway was first dedicated in 2007.
"Having them here in person when we finalized the project, that was pretty exciting," he said.