BYRON, Ill. — “This is what we call mission accomplished,” said Bill Duncan.
A former student of Duncan’s knew exactly what his welding teacher was saying.
“Our job is over. The grill’s job is just getting started,” said Drew Kirk.
Kirk graduated in May. He and John Hawkins, who now is a senior, both worked on the grill during the 2017-2018 school year.
On a cool but sunny Saturday in October, a yearlong journey came to an end and another started as the Darkhorse Lodge grill, designed and built by Duncan’s welding classes at Harlem High School in Machesney Park, was turned over to Kirk and Gretchen Catherwood in Byron.
The Catherwoods are raising funds for and building Darkhorse Lodge near Springville, Tennessee. The lodge will honor their son, Marine Lance Cpl. Alec Catherwood, who was killed in action in Sanjin, Afghanistan, on Oct. 14, 2010.
Alec was part of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment “Darkhorse” Marines. The unit lost 25 Marines during its 10-month deployment, from September 2010 to April 2011.
The lodge is being built on a piece of property where Kirk and Gretchen now live. The lodge complex in the hills and timber of northern Tennessee, just a couple of miles from Kentucky Lake, is being designed and built to provide a place to heal for veterans among veterans. The lodge will be open to veterans of all branches of the military.
The massive grill, built on a boat trailer frame and constructed from a 500-pound propane tank and two halves of a 275-gallon fuel drum, will be an important part of that.
“I think this is going to feed many a Darkhorse guest. I am really looking forward to that,” said Gretchen Catherwood.
The grill also will be used at events to raise funds for the continuing construction of the buildings at Darkhorse Lodge.
Duncan and his classes have been building the customized grills for a few years now. The design and build, from cutting and welding to the metalwork that produces the art on each grill, students are in command of the whole project.
“At any time during the whole school year, there are from nine to 18 students working on the grill,” he said.
The students get their assignment at the start of each year, often meeting some of the recipients of that year’s grill.
“I lay it out for them. I let them know who we’re doing it for and why we’re doing it,” Duncan said.
Duncan is himself a Marine Corps veteran. He said the grills teach his students more than the skills of welding and CAD drafting and metalwork and design.
“Pride. Respect. They understand what this grill represents and who it represents, with the loss of Alec,” Duncan said.
Students also learn that there are concerns larger than their immediate surroundings.
“I like them to see that there’s a bigger world out there, other than just high school, and that the high school problems are not really anything compared to our reasons for building these grills,” Duncan said.
The Catherwoods were in their former hometown, as they always are around Oct. 14, to gather at Alec’s grave with his friends.
“We always just hang out with friends, and we cook brats and hot dogs and get together and tell silly Alec stories. We laugh a lot because he was a laugher,” Gretchen said.
“It’s a celebration of his life,” Kirk said.
In the eight years since his death, the Catherwoods have turned their grief into action for those who made it back.
“It’s given us a chance to focus on the lodge and to let Alec and those other 24 Marines be our inspiration to do this. I think we are more able to do this today than we were eight years ago because that pain has now turned into purpose,” Gretchen said.
Kirk Catherwood said that helping veterans, by building Darkhorse Lodge that will provide a place to hike and fish and just be among other veterans, is the focus.
“In honor of the ones who did come back, in honor of the ones who are here now, we want to help them and we want to honor them. They are the ones who need the help now,” he said.
Gretchen and Kirk said they are inspired by the help they receive along the way and by the donations toward the lodge and its construction.
“It’s amazing that people care. It refreshes us. It keeps us going and lets us continue because we know that people do care,” he said.