At the South Dakota Veterans Cemetery in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, the Veterans Day unveiling of two meticulously sculpted guardian eagles is enough to give you the chills.
Beautiful and bronze, these creatures, crafted by local artist Jurek Jakowicz, didn’t arrive at their post overnight.
In fact, it took over a year and involved the collaboration of many local veteran organizations.
“What I like about Jurek’s work is, is that he is a precisionist,” said Paul Weckman, Sanford Health head of veteran and military services.
“Being in Jurek’s garage and watching him scribe the fletches in the feathers, he knew it was going to sit on top of a gate. So, maybe it didn’t have to be that intricate, but we all know how intricate it is,” said Aaron Pollard, Deputy Secretary of the South Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs.
‘Opportunity to do something for our veterans’
Enlisted by Weckman and Pollard in late 2021, Jakowicz has been donating his time and talents. He started with sketches of an eagle at rest but on duty.
“I am originally from Poland. I came to the United States in 1985,” Jakowicz said.
“It’s just a beautiful opportunity to do something for our veterans. It’s just an honor and privilege really.”
Weckman says Jakowicz is “a U.S. citizen but he wasn’t born here, he came here. He gets it. He understands the importance of freedom.”
In June of 2022, the artist was already putting the finishing touches on the clay of the first eagle sculpture.
“The expression on the faces if you will. The eyes, the beak, the whole thing is just so majestic, and I love it. Everything about it,” Jakowicz said, smiling in his garage workshop.
Pollard adds, “the eagle has a place of significance in our country and with the military and veterans and patriotism. So, it only seemed right that we would have eagles at the cemetery.”
The veterans cemetery opened on Memorial Day in May of 2021. Mounted at the cemetery’s entrance, the beloved birds are the first to welcome you to the 60-acre property that will provide space for more than 28,000 burials.
“We tilted their head one way so when people walk in or drive in, the eagle is going to be looking at that person,” Jakowicz said.
Later, he adjusted the head so a second eagle could be created and placed on the adjacent structure.
Staring down the project and keeping it moving is a labor of love for all involved, especially Weckman, a retired Navy officer.
“That’s the thing I’m so proud of. Our fellow veterans, it wasn’t a tough sell. It was like how much do you need? Within a couple weeks we completely had enough funds available to do the entire project and a little bit extra,” Weckman said.
Transporting a dream into reality. The eagles are part of the original cemetery plans from 2015. They were removed due to budgetary reasons.
“You can walk past a bronze statue and go, well there’s a bronze statue, but you don’t know what goes into that,” Pollard said about the long process.
‘Revealing who Sanford is all about’
From Jakowicz’s workshop to the foundry at BronzeAge Art Casting in August, it took a lot of elbow grease behind the scenes to bring the eagles to life.
“The foundry, those are the things that are in the trenches that people never see,” Weckman said. “In that smoke-filled hot building, they’re in there pouring that molten bronze and doing that dirty work.
“They did an awesome job.”
It’s a community effort making a mark.
“Paul is a champion for veterans and really cares about veterans. It’s a good partnership to have,” said Pollard, who works frequently with Weckman.
“I think it’s a great thing (to prioritize veterans) and it seems to be working well, especially with Sanford.”
The husband of a longtime Sanford employee, Jakowicz sees the organization’s drive to employ and care for veterans firsthand.
“This here really shows that people not only care for the welfare of patients but also veterans who give almost everything for this country,” Jakowicz said.
“It’s revealing who Sanford is all about.”
‘Guardian angels of our fallen’
By design, the mission is bringing a monumental addition to a special place, and doing so side-by-side with local veterans.
“I’m the commander of the Vietnam vets here and we were just honored to be able to contribute to this particular project,” Air Force veteran Hawk Mayer said at the unveiling ceremony.
“These are the guardian eagles, the guardian angels of our fallen of those who have served and are in the process of being interred here.”
Retired Marine Corps Col. David Nordlund says the eagle sculptures “represent our freedom,” and the hard work behind them lets other “veterans know that we don’t give up.”
Pollard finds peace when visiting the site. Even more so now that the eagles are standing guard.
“The men and women buried there, they’re ending their watch. The eagles are taking their watch.”
The sentiment brings out the emotion for some.
“That’s hallowed ground. It’s an opportunity to give back. It’s an opportunity to let them know that they’re safe. Sorry. You have friends buried there. Someday I’ll be buried there,” Weckman said, tearing up.
“All those men and women that sacrificed. If we can give just a little bit back and show them how much we appreciate their sacrifices.”
“A lot of the veterans groups in South Dakota, this has been something they’ve been working on for decades,” Pollard said about finally getting the veterans cemetery built.
“Just know if you did help with the project, we’re forever in your debt and we’re eternally grateful for what you did. It’s a good thing.”
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