- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 20, 2007

MENLO, Iowa (AP) - Ray “Bubba” Sorensen wanted to quit years ago, but there he was turning up again and again at a 56-ton boulder to paint murals of the sacrifices of America’s servicemen and women.

For nine years, Mr. Sorensen, 27, has painted on the boulder, dubbed “Freedom Rock.” It has made him a celebrity in this swath of central Iowa farm country and has become a Memorial Day tradition that draws thousands of people.

“I’m thanking these guys who signed up to do a job no one else wants to do,” said the graphic artist from Ames, Iowa, whose idea began with a spurt of patriotism after watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

Before Mr. Sorensen began painting murals each May, the boulder about 40 miles west of Des Moines on an empty stretch of Highway 25 was covered with graffiti.

But only once has the rock been defaced since he began painting scenes of soldiers, whether they’re crossing the Delaware with Gen. George Washington or flying in a helicopter over Vietnam.

A 58-year-old Vietnam veteran became so angry at the one bit of graffiti that he beat up the young vandal, earning himself a citation and a $90 fine that other vets helped him pay.

“I got very upset,” John Porter said. “The rock is a pretty sacred thing to our community.”

It takes Mr. Sorensen about three weeks to sketch out and paint scenes on the rock. Using floodlights, he sometimes works past midnight.

Local businesspeople encourage visits to the rock, arranging tour bus trips and erecting a welcome kiosk with a plastic mail bin that reads: “Leave a Note for Bubba.”

“I’ve got notebooks full of people leaving messages from all over the world,” he said. “We got like Sweden, we got the Virgin Islands and China.”

The site is especially popular with Vietnam veterans.

Last year, a group of California veterans riding motorcycles to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, stopped at the mural before its completion. They planned to sprinkle the ashes of deceased friends around the rock, but Mr. Sorensen offered to mix the ashes into the paint.

“Eight different Vietnam vets ended up in the paint,” he said. “It kind of made it a living memorial.”

Mr. Sorensen emphasizes that his murals are in support of veterans, not war.

“I’m not pro-war or pro-anybody’s policy. It’s just one big thank-you card,” he said.

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