The solid-steel memorial weighs 1,000 pounds, a load that could well represent the overwhelming pressure U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class David Harp may have felt when he decided to take his own life four years ago.
Harp was born in Illinois but graduated from Lewiston High School. He left behind a wife, three children and many other family members, including his sister Shawna Garner, who lives in Lewiston. And like so many people who have lost loved ones to suicide, they have largely grieved in silence.
But now an effort is afoot in Lewiston to memorialize Harp’s service and leave a legacy that represents his heroic life, not just its tragic end.
“There’s always an adjustment when you come home,” said veteran Sheila Kopczynski, a longtime Lewiston resident and veterans advocate who recently moved to Boise. “I was in the (Gulf) War. You go from this environment where every day could be your last, and you come home to an environment where people seem to be only worried about what they’re going to do on Saturday.”
Kopczynski met Garner by chance a few years ago. She served as the quartermaster for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10043 in Lewiston and stopped by a local bank where Garner works each Friday to make deposits. The two struck up a conversation about the military.
Garner told Kopczynski of Harp’s service and how he decided to take his own life. She also told Kopczynski about how he was honored by Mission 22, an organization that works to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress disorder and the plague of veteran suicide.
Harp was included in a memorial Mission 22 erected in Virginia that features large, rectangular steel slabs with the silhouette of each fallen soldier cut through the inch-thick metal. And when Kopczynski learned that Harp’s family was unable to travel back east for its dedication, she decided something needed to be done.
Kopczynski served on the board for the Eyes of Freedom traveling veterans memorial in 2016 and asked Garner if they could do something to honor their brother. So Garner put together a photo collage, and Kopczynski included it in the memorial while it was at Lewiston’s Red Lion Hotel.
Harp’s mother, Karen Garner, didn’t know about the collage until she happened upon it as she was leaving the exhibit.
“Everybody was a little emotional when they’d come out of there,” Kopczynski recalled. “And then (Karen Garner) stopped to sign in, and she just stared at those pictures. Then she just burst into tears.”
Kopczynski ran over to give her a hug and learned she was Harp’s mother.
“She said to me that it had been so hard to not talk about her son,” she said. “She had always been afraid to because he had taken his own life. I thought how sad that is that a hero can’t be honored because of the way he died.”
Kopczynski has organized the annual Veterans Day Parade in Lewiston for years and invited Harp’s family in 2017 to be the honored guests. Just out of curiosity, she asked what Mission 22 did with the offcuts when they produced the large steel memorials in Virginia.
When she learned they were being sent to family members who wanted them and had a place to mount them, an idea started to form. Kopczynski asked Lewis-Clark Memorial Gardens owners Tom and Lisa Sutherland for a spot. They readily complied. With that detail in place, Kopczynski contacted Mission 22, and the organization shipped the sculpture on its own dime. Things snowballed from there.
The Sutherlands agreed to store the sculpture when it arrived last year. Lonny Gehring and his welding class at Lewis-Clark State College volunteered mount it on a concrete platform with the help of Eric Bowen, owner of A1 Mobil Welding. Cemetery grounds manager Ed Lambert offered to help Gehring with the preparations and tie up any other loose ends.
Eric Hasenoehrl and his staff at Keltic Engineering volunteered to draw up the blueprints for the memorial. And Kopczynski is hoping to enlist the help of a local concrete company to cast the platform.
The goal is to have the memorial in place for a dedication on Memorial Day, or July 4 if that goal can’t be met. It will also serve as a monument to the two other veterans in the cemetery known to have died by suicide, Kopczynski said, and to all military men and women who lose their fight with the demons of war.
“For me, as a fellow veteran, anybody who puts their lives in the hands of their country for whatever purpose deserves to be honored,” she said. “Their families don’t have anything outside of putting something on their headstone to reflect and see that they’re honored for their service to our country.”
Shawna Garner wants people to know there is an epidemic of suicide among military veterans, with an average of more than 20 taking their own lives each day. But she also wants them to know more about Harp’s service than his death. He joined the Army in 2000 and did tours in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan as he rose through the ranks. He exceeded standards in multiple specialty courses and received multiple decorations over his long military career.
“His passion was serving,” she said in an email to the Lewiston Tribune. “It’s where he found his purpose.”
Mills may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2266.