Story by Sarah Naron
While the United States has no shortage of monuments and memorials dedicated to honoring the brave men and women who have willingly sacrificed their lives and health to serve as a member of the nation’s military, one such location in the Lone Star State is in a class all its own. Located on the Lazy U Ranch in Seguin, the SS American Memorial Foundation is the only existing privately-owned war memorial in the country.
Perhaps the most surprising and impressive fact about the memorial is that it was never something that founder Craig G. Russell and his family intentionally set out to establish.
“It’s all been a revolution,” Russell said. “I guess that’s the whole uniqueness of our location, is that nothing was planned. You have to understand that our family is a family of faith, so it’s a pretty easy walk with us when things happen.”
According to Russell, the first bit of inspiration that eventually led to the creation of the SS American Memorial was a 4th of July event held at the ranch during which veterans from the Cold War reunited.
“We held it every 4th of July proceeding,” Russell said of the gathering. “Then, we started inviting friends and family. At year five, there were 600 or 700 people, and it was a weeklong event. It was a festive program.”
Even as the event continued to flourish with each passing year, Russell and his family found themselves troubled.
“We were seeing everybody come out here and enjoy themselves and live music and bands and everything at my family’s expense,” he said. “But nobody was understanding the history of the 4th of July and the sacrifice made by our soldiers.”
In an effort to bring awareness to the true meaning of the holiday, the family adapted the annual festival into a memorial service.
“We started teaching the history of our country and all the unique traditions to all the civilians every year,” he explained. “When we started doing that, the place started taking a change as far as the outlook on life. We made them all turn off their phones and listen to us.”
Another unexpected expansion took place in 2010, when the family offered up the ranch to the Brooks Army Medical Center’s Warrior Transition Battalion as a place of refuge and rehabilitation for wounded soldiers returning from combat.
“From 2010-2014, it was Ground Zero for all the wounded warriors,” Russell said. “They were all amputees, and they learned to walk, ride bicycles, and kayak out here. Then, they became part of the 4th of July event, and we started educating civilians and paying tribute to the warriors. All the people in attendance got to see those warriors and that sacrifice firsthand.”
The construction of the SS American Memorial Building was brought about following the 4th of July celebration held at the ranch in 2012.
“The unit wasn’t designed initially as a memorial; it was just a building to put air conditioner in and let the wounded soldiers get out of the heat,” Russell shared. “Then, over the two years that it took to build, families coming in from around the country sent my family unsolicited money.”
The funds received totaled an excess of $110,000.
“As those checks would come in, I would ask the donors what they wanted me to do with the money,” Russell said. “About halfway through it, they said they would like to make it a memorial.”
The finished structure was an 18×24 foot building which houses a wealth of memorabilia donated by military families and tells the story of the soldiers who paid the ultimate price for the freedom Americans enjoy today.
Although there are no fees imposed on the military members or civilians who wish to utilize the Lazy U Ranch facilities, the family does have one condition.
“They have to take an hour-long tour inside the memorial and learn about the history of our country and sacrifice,” Russell said. “Since it was built, 17,000 active duty soldiers have been funneled through for over 1,000 hour-long presentations on God, family, and country.”
The programs hosted at the ranch for soldiers are operated by the military chaplaincy, to whom the family bequeathed a special place of solace all their own.
We vacated our family lodge in 2017, and now, it’s chaplaincy respite,” Russell said. “We saw the tiredness in the chaplains that were running all this, so we knew they needed their downtime.”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the year 2020 was quite obviously a very uncertain and frightening time for many Americans, especially those who faced difficulties in carrying out traditional events such as weddings and funerals due to shutdowns and social distancing requirements.
“We knew what the isolation would do to Americans, so this place was about getting out of the isolation,” Russell said. “We left our gates open. While the military was closed down and locked on base, we allowed funerals for families that couldn’t hold funerals. We allowed venues for families that couldn’t have a venue for weddings. We allowed church services. We allowed fundraisers.”
A total of 3,000 American citizens benefited as a result of this open-door policy.
“We raised over $38,000 for different nonprofits that were literally fighting for their survival because the government made them shut down,” Russell added.
Throughout their time serving as a helping hand to military members and an educational link for civilians to the country’s history and the sacrifice of its soldiers, Russell and his family have maintained the utmost sense of modesty.
“We’ve helped in just about every arena out there, and no one has ever heard of us, because we’ve never promoted ourselves,” he said. “We’ve kept it quiet. We’ve never held a fundraiser for ourselves; folks have held them for us. We’ve never had to ask. That’s kind of part of the beauty of it — everything is unsolicited.”
Russell urged those who have never experienced the memorial to set aside time to visit at their earliest convenience.
“It is open to any and all Americans,” he said. “It’s an American memorial; it’s not known as a veteran place or military place. It’s an American place.
“I would encourage you to come out and visit this memorial,” he added. “There’s absolutely nothing like it in the world. And for me, that’s the feedback of the 24,000 people that have been here. It is a very powerful place.”
For more information, please visit http://www.ssamemorial.org.