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Community at odds over fallen hero’s statue

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

LITTLETON, Colo. -- A planned statue depicting a local hero, a Navy SEAL killed in Afghanistan, has drawn opposition from some parents, who say the image and location are inappropriate for children.

A bronze sculpture of Petty Officer 2nd Class Danny Dietz Jr. showing him cradling his rifle across his chest is scheduled to be unveiled July 4 at Berry Park here, where he grew up and attended school. The statue was modeled after a photo of the young serviceman.

But a group of parents wants the city to recast the statue or place it elsewhere, arguing that the site, near three elementary schools and two parks, is a hub for young children who could find the weapon disturbing.

"While our hearts go out to the family of this brave young man, we have serious concerns regarding the graphic and violent detail the statue portrays," stated a flier distributed recently in a nearby neighborhood.

"As a community, we cannot allow the many young children in this area to be exposed to a larger than life-size grenade-launching machine gun," the flier stated.

Members of Petty Officer Dietz's family and others have defended the memorial, saying there's a clear distinction between a rifle used in combat to defend the United States and a firearm used in other contexts.

But critics have said the image of an automatic rifle is particularly inappropriate given the memorial's proximity to Columbine High School. The high school, located a few miles from the park, was the site of the 1999 massacre in which two suicidal teenage gunmen killed 12 students and a teacher.

"In light of our community's experience with the Columbine tragedy, and the clear message of nonviolence that we teach in Littleton schools, what is our city thinking?" the flier stated.

Maria Dietz, Petty Officer Dietz's widow, called the references to Columbine "offensive."

"Danny used his gun to protect innocent lives and fight for this country," said Mrs. Dietz, who lives in Virginia Beach. "For them to compare that to Columbine is offensive not only to my husband, but to every other citizen who died behind enemy lines."

She said she hoped that children who pass the memorial would be inspired by his example.

"He's a role model for any kid in that area, someone who grew up and became a hero with his combat gear, which included his gun," Mrs. Dietz said.

Petty Officer Dietz, 25, was awarded the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest award for valor after the Medal of Honor, for fighting off an ambush by insurgents in Afghanistan despite being mortally wounded. His actions were credited with helping a fellow Navy SEAL escape.

Plans for the memorial began last summer when the city started working with Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, and the Dietz family. The family raised $42,000 to cover the costs, with no public funding involved.

The Littleton City Council approved the model unanimously in January.

But last month, two local parents, Emily Cassidy and Linda Cuesta, began raising concerns about the design and location of the memorial.

"This could be the most concentrated area of schoolchildren in the entire city," Mrs. Cassidy said.

Janice Caulfield, who lives around the corner from the site, disagreed. She said she was "thrilled" to have the memorial situated so near her neighborhood. Her children attend two of the schools near the park.

"I'm honored to have this statue go up in my neighborhood so the kids can see one of the soldiers who fight for our freedoms every day," said Mrs. Caulfield, whose father was a career Navy man.

Littleton spokesman Chris Harguth said there were no plans to modify the statue or location. So far the city has received about 150 calls and e-mails in favor of keeping the memorial as planned, he said, and only one against.

Sculptor Robert Henderson is putting the finishing touches on the statue now at the Loveland, Colo., foundry, Mr. Harguth said.

"The statue is at the foundry now, so it's basically done," he said. "Our plans are to unveil the statue on July 4."