Honorary hometown: Fallen soldier to be honored this weekend in Blaine, Minnesota
A mortar attack on May 1, 2010, killed Eric Finniginam at a forward operating base in Kunar province. He was 26.
BLAINE, Minn. -- Some people serve their country. Eric Finniginam served someone else's.
Finniginam was from the island of Yap, part of the nation of Micronesia in the south Pacific. He joined the U.S. Army in 2008, in hopes of making our country his own.
"He joined to become an American citizen. And while he was in Afghanistan, that's what he was studying for. He was going to go do his tests, swear in, and he did that. He attained it,” said his friend Eric Bakken, who served with Finniginam.
Bakken grew up in the Twin Cities and went to high school in Blaine and Andover. He planned to bring Finniginam back to visit, or maybe stay in Minnesota after their tour ended.
But they didn't make it. A mortar attack on May 1, 2010, killed Finniginam at a forward operating base in Kunar province. He was 26.
Finniginam was buried with honors on Yap, but for years Bakken was troubled that his friend hadn't received formal honors in his adopted country.
"I'd always been a little jaded that the average American citizen didn't know what Finn did for them, and that when it happened there was no small town or hometown on U.S. soil to honor his service and sacrifice," Bakken said.
So he raised the money to create a memorial bench that will be dedicated Saturday in Blaine — Bakken offering his hometown, to also be the honorary American home for his friend.
Bakken and Finniginam's family will be on hand for the ceremony.
Bakken said his friend "loved being a soldier. He had that — and it's rare, especially in infantrymen — that ever-optimism."
At the time of Finniginam's death, his father, Robert Finniginam, spoke from Yap with the U.S. Interior Department's Office of Insular Affairs.
He described his son as "a friendly guy who was fun to be around," an avid fisherman, and an accomplished soccer player. He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal for valor while serving in Afghanistan, after his unit came under attack.
Bakken served nine years in the Army, including another tour in Afghanistan, and lost more friends there. But Finniginam stayed with him, even after he left the service.
Bakken himself lives in Washington State now. He works as a non-profit fundraiser, and has named his own daughter Finley, in tribute to his fallen friend.
And Bakken says the Veterans Memorial Park of Blaine is just the place for a formal memorial to Finniginam. Dotted with gardens and flags, the park already has stone tributes to soldiers from every major conflict dating back to the Civil War.
Bakken raised tens of thousands of dollars to add one more: a bench with Finniginam's name, standing right in front of the park's Purple Heart memorial. The dedication on the base of the bench reads, in part, "from a grateful nation."
He's also raised enough money to fly Finniginam's family to Minnesota, including his daughter, who was a year old when her father was killed.
Steve Guider, the Blaine hockey coach who helped create the memorial park, says it isn't just for Blaine veterans, and he hopes Finniginam's family will consider him part of the community nonetheless.
"We're going to present his family with a framed certificate that's got the mayor's signature and the Blaine seal on there, proclaiming him an honorary Blaine resident,” Guider said.
The dedication is planned for noon Saturday in front of Blaine City Hall, and Bakken hopes that Minnesotans will turn out for the family.
"Showing them that we are forever grateful for their son's sacrifice,” he said. “Because that's not happened for them, ever. I'm sure that they're proud, and I know that they're proud of their son, but I just wanted to give them something — especially in a world that keeps taking things from us."
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