For the 27th annual year, the gym was filled for the annual Veterans Day assembly at Anamosa High School.

Guest Speaker Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II was on hand to talk about his journey making Freedom Rocks. The experience that sparked him to action was the viewing of “Saving Private Ryan” in the theaters.

“I just thought I have to do something to say thank you to our veterans,” he said.

He started with a spot in his own county in 1999 by honoring veterans with artwork on a rock famous for graffiti depicting the famous flag raising on Iwo Jima. The rock had been placed in Menlo next to Highway 25 in the 1960s.

“I took over the graffitiing in 1999,” he said, noting a special mural on the rock commemorating the 60th anniversary of Pearl Harbor was graffitied.

After about five years, when he was contemplating stopping, the rock was part of a viral email chain which provided Sorensen with a path forward.

“It went from the Freedom Rock being a local oddity to being countrywide and then worldwide,” he said. “People heard I was going to give up painting it, and I started getting calls from veterans and Legions saying, ‘Please don’t quit doing this. This is what we ride to every year.’’’

He’s continued to repaint the original rock every year since, which has no shortage of stories. One year, while he was working on a Vietnam War depiction, a motorcycle group of Vietnam veterans stopped by the rock to have some ashes sprinkled at the base of the rock. Sorensen had another idea.

“I said, ‘Don’t do that, they’ll just blow away. A lot of people walk and drive by here.’ I said, ‘Dump them into my green paint, I’ll paint them on here and they’ll be here forever,” Sorensen recalled. “They loved that idea.”

He said seven veterans’ ashes were painted into the rock, but ever since 2006, he’s received remains in the mail to be added to the paint, and Sorensen said 150 sets of ashes have been incorporated to his repainting of the original Freedom Rock.

“It turned it into a true memorial,” he said.

The Freedom Rock tour, which got a Freedom Rock in each county in Iowa, was inspired by Sen. Chuck Grassley’s annual 99 county tour which began in 2013. Ten rocks were booked the first week after the tour was announced, 60 in the first year. Jones County’s rock, just recently dedicated, was the penultimate rock to be finished, ahead of just Linn County. To celebrate the completion of the tour, he announced a 100th rock would be available for bid for charity. Sorensen announced later that day that Adventureland would get the 100th rock.

The Iowa Lottery used images of the Freedom Rock to help raise money for veterans’ organizations, and helped to get a sign put up marking the original rock after lottery representatives got lost on the way to photograph it.

“Two weeks later, there was a sign out there. I guess it pays to know the Iowa Lottery,” he said.

With the completion of his state tour, his goal is to get a rock in every state. Rocks have been painted in Washington, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Missouri. Rocks have been booked for Illinois and Ohio.

In addition to Sorensen’s talk, the assembly honored veterans of every branch with the reading of their creeds and playing of their official songs.

Community members took part in the practice of going around the gym to thank those that had served.

A familiar Veterans Day sight could also be seen, or at least heard, as a Chinook helicopter landed at the middle school with students getting a chance to tour the vehicle and ask questions of the crew.

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