Mark Goujon lost three members of his Air Force team in January 2007 when an improvised explosive device they were sent to inspect detonated in Iraq.
He was supposed to be on that inspection, but was swapped off.
After returning to Riverview, he started thinking there should be a more fitting tribute to the friends he lost, and other Floridians who died in Iraq, than the photos displayed in his home. And so started a two-year quest of fundraising and organizing that culminated Saturday, with the opening of the Iraq Veterans Memorial in Veterans Memorial Park and Museum east of Tampa.
The ceremony was marked by a rifle salute, a rendition of taps and a reading of the names of the 190 men and women from Florida who died in Iraq by some of their mothers.
Lt. Gen. John F. Mulholland, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, spoke to the crowd of the importance of monuments.
"Without them, we forget the cost of freedom," he said. Next to him, the surviving relatives of some of those who died in Iraq sat under two white tents. Mulholland turned to the families, to say, "Our nation could never repay the debt we owe for your sacrifice."
Afterwards, Goujon sat at a picnic table and talked about how he still couldn't believe that, after two years of planning, the memorial that had started as a sketch on a napkin finally existed.
Two concrete pillars mark the entrance to the memorial, one for Operation Iraqi Freedom, the other for Operation New Dawn, the respective names for each of the United States' campaigns. Past the pillars is the centerpiece, a 12-foot concrete stoop topped with a bronze statue of the battle cross — a rifle emerging from a pair of boots, a helmet on top, symbolizing a fallen soldier.
Underneath the battle cross, on the concrete, the names of the 190 Floridians who died in Iraq — 19 from Hillsborough County — are etched into dog tag symbols. A mural of Iraq battle scenes on a concrete wall behind the battle cross serves as the backdrop.
Hillsborough County government contributed $100,000 to the monument, and private donors raised another $51,000. Donors could purchase plaques on one wall of the monument for special tributes.
Goujon was one of them. He was part of a weapons intelligence team that responded to explosive devices and studied them for patterns and clues.
He lost six friends in Iraq in all, and five were not from Florida. All six of his friends are commemorated on the memorial.
After Saturday's dedication, Goujon talked about two of them. Timothy Weiner, 35, of Tamarac, was three years short of retirement, and left behind a wife and a 16-year-old son. Elizabeth Loncki, 23, was supposed to fly back to Delaware 20 days later. Her boyfriend had planned to propose.
The monument isn't just for the dead, though, Goujon said.
"It's also a promise for those still serving," he said. "So they know, when they take off their camouflage and put on shirts and ties, they know we'll honor them."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]