Nancy Schuble placed her hand on the cold, hard bronze of the soldier’s back.
"The first time I saw this statue in December, I cried," Schuble said, her voice shaking.
The seven and a half foot tall sculpture depicts Jesus embracing a World War II soldier, presumably after the soldier had fallen in battle. Jesus’ eyes are closed, his hands marked with the holes from crucifixion as he holds the soldier.
The statue temporarily resides in the main hallway of the Village Baptist Church between two stained-glass windows, bathing the area in an ethereal soft yellow light.
"This reminds me that my son is in good hands," Schuble said.
Schuble, a snowbird from Missouri, lost her son, U.S. Navy and U.S. Army veteran Christopher Vertreesin 2010. He died from injuries sustained in a training accident.
He was just 31 and had two young children.
For Schuble, the statue represents an all-encompassing feeling of hope, comfort and love.
"Every Sunday after church, I have to walk up and touch it," said Schuble, who returns home with her husband in mid-March.
The 2,000-pound sculpture, titled "Lest We Forget," will soon be moved from the church’s hallway. It will become the centerpiece in a new prayer garden dedicated to first responders and members of the military.
The garden, currently under construction, will be a place for people of all religions to sit and reflect on those lost in the line of duty. People can purchase a brick for the garden and have it engraved with the name of a loved one. Schuble had a paver engraved with her son’s name.
"I can’t wait to see his brick in the garden," she said.
The garden is tentatively scheduled for compeltion by Easter. It had been slated for completion in time for last year's Veterans Day, but was delayed by the city's permitting process.
"Lest We Forget" had a long and winding journey before ending up in Destin. Some, like longtime parishioner Ron Padgett, say it’s nothing short of a miracle.
"And I don’t throw around that word lightly," Padgett said.
Padgett, a guitar player in the Village Church Praise Band, first saw the statue while browsing in a Naples antique shop last February.
"I saw a lady touching the statue and I went in the shop to ask the owner where it came from," Padgett said. "The shop owner told me the lady came to visit the statue almost every day. He said that it originally came from a church that was foreclosed on."
The statue was found covered in vines and detritus in the old churchyard before it was brought to the antique shop.
Padgett left the store, intrigued by the statue and its story, but discouraged by the $75,000 price tag.
It turns out the high price tag made sense. "Lest We Forget" is the first piece cast from a 1999 mold by Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz. Schmalz was able to cast only two statues before the mold broke in an accident. He lost track of the original statue soon after it was sold.
The second statue made from the mold currently resides in the Armed Forces Honor Garden at St. Paul the Apostle Church in Horseshoe Bay, Texas.
Eight months after Padgett first saw the statue, a funeral brought him and his wife back to Naples. For a second time, he pulled into the antique shop’s parking lot.
"Can you tell me the price of Jesus today?" Padgett asked the shop owner half-jokingly.
The owner told Padgett the statue had just returned from Cleveland, Ohio. It had been purchased by a veteran’s group but was later returned due to insufficient funds. Sotheby’s auction house was scheduled to pick it up because the Naples shop was going out of business.
Padgett couldn’t let the statue go. He threw out a price, and after some negotiation, the shop owner accepted a disbeliving Padgett's offer. He wouldn't reveal the exact price he paid, but said it was far less than the original appraisal.
He called Dr. Steven Davies, Village Baptist's pastor, to see if there was a place for the statue at the church.
"I prayed about this, and we have a place for it," Dr. Davies told Padgett.
Padgett’s vision is for veterans, policeman, firemen, paramedics, families and community members to enjoy the garden as a place of reflection.
"I lost buddies in Vietnam," Padgett said. "So it means a lot to me, but to others, this means a heck of a lot more. I’ve never lost a child like Nancy has. That’s who this statue is for."