Band of brothers: Community rallies around fallen military hero
Armada — Jason Freiwald and Dean Smith never met.
But Smith considers Freiwald his brother.
“We are brothers by being veterans,” said Smith, 45, of Shelby Township. “I’m big on brotherhood, and I can’t let him be forgotten.”
Freiwald, a chief petty officer who was raised in Armada, was a 30-year-old Navy SEAL killed in action during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. He died Sept. 12, 2008, from injuries suffered during a battle a day earlier with heavily armed militants.
He was deployed there from his assignment at the Naval Special Warfare Development Group in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He left behind a wife, Stacey Freiwald, and a daughter, Jasmine, now 13, who live in Charleston, South Carolina.
Smith is a former corporal in the Marine Corps, who served from 1992-96, in a security detail at Camp David for former President Bill Clinton. He remembered hearing Freiwald’s name during a Memorial Day parade some time ago, and that name emerged again last year.
“His cousin was selling shirts for his 10th anniversary, and I bought one,” he said. It was for a fundraiser and "they were sending Jason’s dad to take his granddaughter to a daddy/daughter dance.”
That serendipitous meeting between Smith and Freiwald’s relative will culminate in the dedication ceremony of a memorial Smith spearheaded for the war hero at noon Sunday in Armada Township Park.
"He’s a superhero, and I just wanted to do something out-of-the-world big for him because, come on, we’re losing our place in history,” Smith said. “Kids are growing up with the Kardashians and not people like Jason.
“They need a role model, and now kids will pass this memorial when they go play on the playground.”
The memorial, which features a 1,000 pound, 6-foot Kedge anchor from the 1840s, is placed near the flagpole in the park. Smith said it was discovered in the depths of the St. Clair River.
An earlier memorial of a small statue for Freiwald sits near the post office in the village of Armada.
“We paid $4,000 for the anchor, which was a bargain because the salvage diver’s brother is a Navy SEAL,” Smith said.
The Navy’s Sea, Air and Land Forces — commonly known as SEALs — are expertly trained to deliver highly specialized, intensely challenging warfare capabilities that are beyond the means of standard military forces.
Asked how Smith and his friends came up with the money, he responded, “We went to a lot of clubs and begged.”
“Countless businesses supported the project," he said. "Jason literally brought the town together, 10 years after his passing. That’s one heck of a legacy.”
An inscription on the anchor contains the SEAL creed.
“It is their moral compass,” he said.
Asked why they selected an anchor, he responded, “To reflect his naval service, and I wanted something with character.”
He recruited help from Bill Garvin, whom Smith describes as a friend and fellow patriot, Derrick Barnes, who is Freiwald’s cousin and best friend, Paul Sikes, who is Smith’s brother-in-law, and Andrew Stryker, who served in the Corps with him.
Freiwald’s dad, Rick Freiwald, 64, and his mom, Terri Freiwald, 65, both will be at the dedication ceremony.
But it will be bittersweet.
“My wife and I were looking for something to commemorate the 10 years since he was killed in action, so this came along at the right time,” Rick Freiwald said. “It is a beautiful memorial.”
But, he said, “I can’t wait to get it over with.”
Asked why, he responded, “It’s been quite a task. It just feels like it’s opening wounds again.”
Jason Freiwald was the big brother to three younger siblings, and he took the position seriously, said his father.
“He always impressed me and my wife that he was going to be a natural leader,” Rick Freiwald said. "He always led his brothers around and actually, helped raise them.”
Also expected to attend the dedication is Armada Township Treasurer Camille Finlay. She is the first person in the township offices Smith said he approached about constructing a memorial.
“Dean came in and said, ‘I want to do this and who do I talk to?’” Finlay said. “So I asked him to give me some designs and plans to make sure all the i’s were dotted and everything was laid out so we would know exactly what it is.”
The township's board ultimately agreed that the memorial could be placed in the park.
“I think it is a great idea,” Finlay said. “It is a very good tribute to all of our military, and we’re starting to get feedback for others who had the same fate.”
She added, “We’re starting to talk about if we can do something else for others, but we’ll see how this goes.”
Smith was asked what the memorial personally means to him.
“We do forget, it’s human nature,” he said. “Reminders of the sacrifices that men like these have paid keep us grounded as a nation.”