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Tom Smock just wanted a little project, something to spruce up the town and juice community pride.

He didn't expect to spend much time on whatever the Chamber of Commerce decided to do. And he certainly didn't expect to lead the charge.

Two early ideas -- moving a one-room school into town and fixing up the former railroad depot -- fizzled.

Driving along Main Street, a short trip in Dunkerton, he passed the town's veterans monument. The long billboard-like affair was crowded by overgrown bushes, the hand-painted names fading from years of neglect.

Tom was uninspired.

And that's where and when his mission began.

"It was time for something a little more permanent," he says.

Going in to it, Tom announced the new veterans monument would be done well -- or not at all. He estimated the granite, cement, stone and statue would cost as much as $35,000.

He met some skepticism. Most felt he would never raise that kind of money in Dunkerton, pop. 749. Tom, a former Marine, began preaching the monument gospel with the zeal of John the Baptist to any group or individual who would listen.

Resident Tom Adamson caught the fever. So did Tom Bagby, who runs a repair shop.

The two men wrote checks, donated their time and their expertise.

There were many others, some with names other than Tom.

"When you've got people like that, how can I help but get excited?" Tom Smock says.

The monument is in part a living memorial. Many names engraved on paving bricks -- paid for by veterans and their families -- belong to men and women still alive today.

Examining the 297 bricks also reveals a stunning breadth of history.

- Jacob Hoffman's marker says he helped guard President Lincoln's assassin and marched with Gen. Sherman to the sea.

- World War II veteran Bruce Haight is described as a space pioneer, and an Internet search put him at the launch site when the Apollo 1 astronauts died in a fiery disaster in 1967.

- David Musch has a brick. A Marine, Musch died in Vietnam. A graduate of East High School and an Eagle Scout, he was killed by a sniper's bullet along the Ho Chi Min Trail. He never met his daughter.

- Tom Smock served during the Cuban Missile Crisis. His son, Todd, a career Iowa National Guardsman, was recently dispatched to Kosovo.

At least 15 bricks bear names of immediate Knebel kin. In a town Dunkerton's size, though, it's difficult even for an insider to know all the possible familial connections.

Some bricks make the link easy.

Sgt. John Heiple, U.S. Air Force during World War II, shares space with his daughter, Marine Pfc. Sue Etringer, who served during the Vietnam era, and granddaughter, Army Sgt. Jami Etringer, who served from 1997-2002.

Examining the monument this week, I was humbled to find several Magees. My family bought one for my dad, Raleigh, who served in the Army at Fort Knox, Ky., during the Korean War.

But there were others: Wayne and his late father, Lloyd, best known for running Magee Construction Co. And an uncle, Jack, who served during World War II. Distant relatives, Paul and Dan, are there, too.

The discovery strengthens my resolve to get a brick for David Porter Magee, who fought in the Civil War. Family legend holds he shunned horse riding after being released from duty.

Businessman Jerry Smith, owner of Smith Electric, never wore a military uniform. But he's helping wire lights that will illuminate the monument. He placed a marker for his father, Kenneth, and brother, Frank, who served during World War II and Vietnam, respectively.

Too ill to serve at first and later talked out of heading to Vietnam by his brother, Jerry views his volunteer work now as penance.

"I always felt I missed out," Jerry says. "I didn't get to serve then. Maybe this will make up for some of that."

Tom Smock, a native of Evansdale, points to people such as Smith when talking about the monument's success. He downplays his own role, saying the project benefited from those eager to remember the World War II generation, 9-11 disaster and ongoing war on terrorism.

"When this thing is done and we have the dedication, I don't know how I'm going to express my appreciation to this community. I really don't," Tom says.

He's right, but exactly wrong.

It's Tom -- and all of the military men and women -- who are owed a word of thanks.

Dennis Magee is the Courier's regional editor.

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