CIRCLEVILLE — With the Pumpkin Show nearly set up and ready to go for preview night Tuesday, there was one final, and important, piece to the puzzle that had to be installed, the Eyes of Freedom Traveling Memorial.

The Eyes of Freedom is a traveling memorial of several paintings of soldiers from the Lima Company who died during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lima company was one of the hardest-hit units of the operation, as 23 members of the company were killed in combat.

Mike Strahle, executive director for the Eyes of Freedom, said it was great to be back in Circleville, calling the event a homecoming of sorts.

“We were really proud to be here in 2019 and to be back here again,” he said. “We enjoyed the record crowds of 2019 and with everything being cooped up in 2020, there’s a lot of fun to be had, making up for lost time and with other events in the world, there are many things that are adding up for a recipe for a powerful week for us this week.”

A motorcade brought the memorial to town as their special trailer and truck, sponsored by RNL Carriers, was last in line of the motorcycles, jeeps and other vehicles that escorted the memorial to Circleville. They’ve spent the night setting up in order to get ready for preview night and to be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. in Memorial Hall each day. To visit the museum enters the building on the Pickaway Street side.

“We want to continue to be of help to veterans or their families that are struggling,” Strahle, who is a veteran, said while sharing the mission of the memorial.

“The families have to not only keep us afloat when we’re deployed, but they’re the shoulder to lean on when we get home. It falls back to the families often and it shows [Silent Battle Creator Anita Miller’s] original vision of wanting to help heal families and that whole idea has remained throughout.”

Strahle said they’ve been working during COVID to improve some things since they had the time.

“We’ve actually improved our previous museum quality kiosks people were interacting with and video recordings have all been updated and redone,” he said.

In addition to the physical part of the upkeep, Strahle said there was another with the relationships they’ve formed since they’ve started the memorial.

“A lot of the time we spent in 2020 was keeping and maintaining relationships with hundreds of veterans we’ve become close with in the country who might have needed some strength and that the tribute had a profound impact,” Strahle said.

“It was our job to keep up communication with our audience, even if we weren’t physically traveling. Although we love the one-on-one conversation time with folks, it doesn’t match the impact of continuing conversations and putting people in front of the memorial.”

Strahle, who said Pumpkin Show is one of the bigger events they do each year, said they’re hoping to see some new faces this year as well.

“We want to get many more new eyes on it, we’ve got ground to make up for that,” he said.

“We have some exciting things coming down the pipe that will be more impactful and noticeable in 2022. I can’t give details yet, but I’m like an excited little kid. There have been so many things that have clicked together going forward in 2022.”

One difference from the Eyes of Freedom returning this year is that the trailer won’t be in the Saturday parade.

“With anticipated record crowds, it was becoming tight to get the trailer through the streets,” he said.

Strahle said it was small towns that have really supported and kept them in their mission over the last 18 months.

“It’s the small towns like Circleville that have been the ones to restart the engines for us this year with the patriotic energy,” he said. “A lot of our highlights have very much been in small town America and we’re appreciative of it.”

Strahle said the Eyes of Freedom is already planning to return for next year too, as they’ve received financial support to do so for both 2021 and 2022.

“That has never, ever happened,” he said. “We’ve recovered from 2020 and the outlook was pretty grim last year and this year with the inability to gather large crowds around military service and mental health in returning veterans. It was all sidelined. We were only able to do six or seven outdoor events during the COVID-19 shutdown.”

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