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What’s the Secret to Northern Colorado’s Veterans Plaza Garden? Check the Soil.

Dirt isn’t something most people think about on a daily basis. But Rob Allerheiligen has spent a lot of time researching and transporting the grainy brown substance over the past year.

A Vietnam-era veteran and former Colorado State University professor, Allerheiligen is one of a small group of volunteers who have traveled to historic graveyards and battlefields across the world. The idea is to collect soil samples that on Sunday will become part of the Veterans Plaza garden.

“I think soil has an emotional connection for a lot of people,” he says. “If you think about the Depression era, and soil being blown away, it connects us to the earth.”

One of the nine samples collected by Allerheiligen comes from Khe Sanh, Vietnam. The remote outpost was heavily attacked by North Vietnamese in 1968. He wasn’t there at the time, but remembers the fear and uncertainty felt by fellow marines

 “I remember the news broadcasts every day of these guys of Khe Sanh being under siege,” he says. “I guess I just pictured myself there…trying to imagine what it must have been like during those four months. Had to be hell.”

Soil samples from Iwo Jima, Normandy and Utah Beach carry similar stories. The memorial also contains earth from today’s conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and military cemeteries in Belgium, France and Luxemburg.

But strict U.S. customs law around shipping foreign soils to the U.S. almost prevented this project from getting off the ground. And that’s when an unlikely ally stepped into the picture. Jim Self, director of the Soil, Water and Plant Testing Lab at Colorado State University connected volunteers with permits to ship soil into the state. Then he sterilized all 90 samples for the garden. Today he’s standing in his lab coat in front of a miniature whiteoven.

“We’ll keep [samples] in there for four hours to burn off the organic matter,” he says.

This includes microorganisms, insect eggs and any other potential hazards. When finished, the samples are dried out and mostly red in color.

“Some of samples from Okinawa and Guam still remained black, and I think that’s because they’re volcanic-type soils, so they stay the original color they were brought in as,” he says.

Plaza organizers have big plans for the soil. In addition to the garden, Co-Chair of the Organizing Committee Diggs Brown says he hopes to tell the history of each sample with the help of touch-screen monitors, which he hopes to install during phase 2 of the project.

“We’ll have biographies of veterans, the history of the soil samples, what happened on those battlefields or cemeteries, and videos with veterans from different conflicts,” he says.

But the next step for the samples is this Sunday’s ceremony, when all 90 will be mixed together along with native Colorado soil. The red dirt from Khe Sanh will blend together with black soil from Okinawa and Guam.

You could say the samples will lose their identity. But according to Rob Allerheiligen, there’s something else that's gained by the process.

“It’s a physical bridge. I mean, there’s the soil in the garden,” he says. “And I don’t know if that piece is from Utah beach, and I don’t know if that piece is from the Hanoi Hilton. But I know it’s in there, and I know those flowers are growing because of it.”


The dedication of the Northern Colorado Veterans Plaza will happen this Sunday at 11 am in Fort Collins’ Spring Canyon Park. Click herefor details.

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