A soldier, called to serve in the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is pulled one way by his duty to his country and another by his duty to his family.
This burden, felt by 225,000 Texas service members who have been deployed in the ongoing conflict, will be depicted in a new monument to be unveiled Dec. 2 on the south lawn of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission on Capitol grounds.
“The overall story is that the service member is in limbo between heaven and heart. His wife and child are earthbound; he’s got one leg on the ground and one foot lifted, being carried off by an angel,” said Sandra Van Zandt, the artist who created the sculpture.
The bronze, 20-foot tall “Price of Liberty” monument has been in the works since 2015. To personalize the monument, the artist modeled the angel pulling at the soldier after the Lady Liberty statue on the Capitol dome, and labeled the soldier’s uniform “Houston” as a dedication to the home of the monument's large funders. The base of the statue will feature dog tags that Van Zandt had families and service members adorn with the name of a soldier or a prayer.
It took two legislative sessions for veterans and Gold Star families — relatives of U.S. military members who died in battle — to secure the plot on Capitol grounds and raise funds for the sculpture. Terry Burgess, who lost his son Bryan Burgess in Afghanistan, traveled from Fort Worth to Austin to share stories of his son and to push for the monument. He remembered sitting in the offices of lawmakers and sharing tears over stories about Bryan.
“We got to Austin, saw the model and it’s just heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking to a Gold Star parent,” Burgess said. “[The artist] didn’t even have to explain it to me. All of the imagery is exactly what I carry in my heart every day.”
Bryan Burgess, 29, was killed in action in March 2011. He had been awarded a Bronze Star Medal and was a husband and father of an 11-year-old daughter, Makya, and a 9-year-old son, Zander.
“It was 16 days to the end of the deployment. We held our breath for almost a year. We had been through two other deployments and Bryan always came home,” Elizabeth Burgess, Bryan’s stepmother, tearfully said. “Until he didn’t.”
State Sen. Donna Campbell, R-New Braunfels, remembers meeting with some of the Gold Star families as they lobbied for the legislation, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 15, 2015, that cleared the way for the construction of the monument on Capitol grounds.
“Every family loss is unique because it’s different, it strikes at the heart of the family,” Campbell said. “It makes me more aware of the value of what our soldiers do, the price our soldiers pay. This memorial depicts that, ensures their courage and bravery are remembered.”
For Retired Army Colonel James Stryker, a Vietnam veteran, it was the sacrifices of service members and families like the Burgesses that inspired him to spearhead the movement for this memorial. Stryker lobbied for the legislation to secure the Capitol grounds and raised $440,000 to cover the cost of the statue. Major donors included the Houston Automobile Dealers Association and Houston auto dealer Tony Gullo, whose grandson served in Iraq. In partnership with the Texas National Guard Family Support Foundation, a nonprofit, Stryker is still raising funds for the dedication.
Stryker recalled watching a tearful goodbye between a young mother and her child. While the service member got ready to deploy to either Iraq or Afghanistan, her daughter chased her, grabbed her leg and started screaming. It was this scene that gave him the vision for the monument.
“I thought to myself, "My God, what a great generation of warriors we have today,'" Stryker said. "'Someone ought to do something for this generation of warriors.'”
Stryker approached Van Zandt after seeing some of her work in Tomball — such as her monument to Thomas Henry Ball, a former U.S. congressman and father of the Houston Ship Channel. Van Zandt has created several other historical and military monuments that stand mostly in Texas and Oklahoma. In Austin, she has a "Freedom is Not Free" sculpture of American Bald Eagles in the lobby of software company Overwatch Systems.
When Stryker envisioned the monument, he wanted to make sure not only to honor the 600 Texas service members who have given their lives, but the sacrifices of their families.
“For 365 days you don’t know what your loved one is doing, you don’t know if they’re OK or not, and you assume the worst,” Stryker said. “I think it’s one of the few monuments that pay tribute to both the sacrifice made by the service members and the families.”
The dedication to families resonated with the Burgesses. Since the loss of their son, they’ve had opportunities to connect with other Gold Star families and hope this monument will facilitate similar networks for others. The Burgesses plan to travel to Austin to witness the monument unveiling.
State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, chairman of the House Defense and Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said the monument will be significant not just for the service members and their families, but for all Texans.
“Hopefully, when people come onto the grounds of the Capitol they’ll be able to get a sense of what they go through,” Gutierrez said. “The fact that the conflict is still going on — hopefully, this monument will activate people to get involved in the process, make their leaders accountable and tell them to get our people home.”