SOUTH SIOUX CITY | Surrounded by photos of the fallen sailor, the artist skillfully sculpted the dog handler's face.
Susan Bahary shed a few tears, occasionally overcome by sadness and grief. With each piece of clay, she thought of U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class John Douangdara, who died doing what he loved. Knowing that her work would provide a lasting memory for his family wiped away the pain.
The South Sioux City native and 29 other service members died Aug. 6, 2011, when their helicopter crashed in Afghanistan. Douangdara, 26, was a Naval Special Warfare member who handled a dog, Bart, for the Navy SEALs. The dog also died in the crash.
After six months creating the John Douangdara and Bart Memorial, Bahary shipped the half-life-size bronze monument from Santa Barbara, Calif., to a small Nebraska town, not to see it again until a Memorial Day ceremony.
"It's hard to have a more moving subject than that," she said of Douangdara and his war dog. "I hope that it's a comfort to John's family as well as his friends."
The statue will be unveiled at 1 p.m. Monday in the dog park named after Douangdara inside Siouxland Freedom Park, a 55-acre site along Foundry Road.
Two months before Douangdara died, Chan Follen got to see her brother for her wedding. That would be the last time.
"It's so hard on the family because we don't have anything of him here," she said.
He's buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Follen, of South Sioux City, tries to visit the Virginia gravesite at least once a year. It's a way for her not to forget.
The 33-year-old hopes the hometown memorial will serve as a site of remembrance for friends and family but also as a reminder for future generations of the sacrifices that have been made.
"Besides having a place to be able to go see him when we miss him, we want people to learn from what he's given up," she said.
Bahary was commissioned to create the $45,000 statue. It was the first time for her to capture the special bond between a handler and his dog.
"My former work had honored handlers but just through the image of the dog," she said.
The complex piece of art required extensive research. She collected photos of Douangdara, listened to his family reminisce and conducted a photo shoot with one of his friends, a fellow dog handler who reenacted the image she wanted to portray.
"They were offering any help that I needed whatsoever in the creation of this work," she said. "It meant a great deal to them that John and Bart were remembered."
Bahary made deliberate design choices when she was sketching and sculpting the statue.
Douangdara's right hand, placed on his heart and holding a gun, represents his sense of duty, justice and patriotism. His left hand, lightly touching the dog, shows his love for Bart and the strong connection they shared.
The fallen sailor has a slight smile.
"It was very special and very touching for me to meet John's friends and the people he worked with," Bahary said. "Everybody agreed that he was the kind of person who would just light up a room and always brought everyone's spirits up at work."