It was an emotional evening. At times, the room sounded with laughter. At other times, there was a patriotic reverence as tears rolled down the faces of both men and women.
Locals and out-of-towners packed into the Great Falls War Memorial Building on May 24 for the dedication of a memorial for area veterans.
The ceremony began on the patio with the presentation of colors by the Great Falls High School JROTC, the Pledge of Allegiance and a presentation of “The Star Spangled Banner” by the Great Falls High School Band. The Rev. Curtis Cameron offered the invocation, Chester County Councilman Archie Lucas gave the welcome and Chester County Supervisor Carlisle Roddey gave the opening comments.
“You have a Memorial Building. But what is it a memorial to?” Roddey questioned. “It is dedicated to the people of Great Falls.” “It has been a pleasure to work on this project,” Lucas said. “We recognize the right our veterans gave us to assemble together and I appreciate the good turnout.”
Over 1,200 names of local veterans will be included in a showcase inside the hallway of the War Memorial Building. Lucas said he knew many of the veterans being recognized and knew some of them when they were young boys. He said he was “running buddies” with a few of them. He recognized Vietnam veteran Brady Trotter as one of his best friends. He shared a story about loaning Trotter $100 before he left for war. He said Trotter told him that if he didn’t return, that his mother would pay the debt. “But he came home,” Lucas said.
Lucas left the audience wondering if Trotter made good on the loan! “I don’t regret going, but I wouldn’t want to go back again,” Trotter said. Lucas said organizers worked on the memorial project for five months. He expressed gratitude to Brian Garris and the family of the late Joe Garris for supplying a list of names, to Joe Shockey for bringing him a photo that included a lot of local veterans and to Sara McCaston for supplying him with newspaper clippings from war times.
Lucas thanked the Great Falls Reporter for publicizing information about the planned memorial. Councilman-elect H.C. Wright was asked to speak. Wright’s only comment was that he entered the U.S. Navy in 1958 and served 23 years. Councilman-elect Charles Dixon said he was 34-years-old when he entered the military. He said he was initially told he was too old but after a persuasive conversation with Senator Strom Thurmond, Dixon was granted the right to enter the military. He found it difficult to keep up with 19 and 20-year olds, he joked. He said it was shortly after 9-11 when he was deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. He joined the Airborne unit and was attached to a special forces unit in Afghanistan. Dixon said he came home briefly before he got orders to go to Iraq. When he first arrived in Iraq, Dixon said he faced 65 to 70 attacks a day. After being injured on a jump and five surgeries later, Dixon’s military career came to an end. When he returned home, Dixon said he gave his heart to the Lord and began to live a Christian life. “I got saved. Now I’m in a different type army,” he said. Three-year Marine veteran Preston “Hambone” Brown completed a tour of duty in Vietnam. “Vietnam was not a popular war,” Brown said.
Brown thanked the people of his hometown for their support following his return home. He said he did not witness the actions that some Vietnam veterans did when they arrived back in the United States. Retired Army Col. Charles Ferguson served his country for 30 years. During that time, he said he faced great danger. Ferguson spoke on freedom and the need for strategic bases to maintain the nation’s freedom. “The greatest thing we can lose is our freedom,” Ferguson said. “We want to bring our people home and so do I, but we can’t bring all of our people home.”
Ralph Garris, a Desert Storm veteran, said he joined the military in 1970. He expressed sympathy to Sonny and Sallie Hudson in the recent loss of their son, Keith. “Keith was a true patriot,” Garris said. Draft No. 334, Garris said he came from a military family, that his grandmother sent four boys to war. “And four came home,” Garris said. Garris said his father and three uncles served in the armed forces. He said his father and his best buddy, Roy McElduff, enlisted together.
McElduff is listed as Missing in Action. “I saw my daddy cry every July 4 over Roy,” Garris said. Garris remembers his father taking him squirrel hunting when he was young. He said his father told him to sit still, be quiet and listen. Those three essentials carried on in his military life. Garris said he saw two men die in Desert Storm and he saw a plane crash during his tenure. He remembers signing in each morning with a machine gun pointed at his head. “If that don’t get your attention, nothing will,” Garris said. Garris said most veterans want to be left alone. “You don’t hear veterans running around and saying ‘look at me,'” he said. “We need the brightest and the best and we need more veterans in elected office,” Garris said. “We wouldn’t be in this mess we’re in today.” “It has been an honor to be from Great Falls,” Garris added. “Great Falls has produced some great warriors.” Flopeye Fish Festival Chairwoman Sallie Hudson said the festival has honored local veterans for the past 28 years and will continue to do so.
“This ceremony is to honor and memorialize veterans who serve our country in war time and in times of peace,” Hudson said. “Our liberties and values stand safe today because of these brave men and women who have been ready to face the fire. We thank God for each and everyone of them.” Hudson referred to a closeness in the crowd. “Whether you’re related to someone whose name is engraved here or not, you can share in the kinship of being an American citizen,” she said. “We are surrounded by the spirits of those who have served our country, those who have sacrificed so much for the freedom we enjoy here on this day.” Hudson said the memorial was dedicated as a place for people to gather to share experiences with each other or just stand alone to ponder thoughts they can never share with anyone.
She said she also wanted the memorial to be a place where children will learn lessons of freedom from their parents and grandparents. “This memorial was built to remember those who died on the battlefields, the Missing in Action, the wounded and all who contribute in war and peace to the freedom of our United States,” she said. Hudson said the memorial service included three main elements – the eagle, a symbol of strength and liberty; the flag – America’s beautiful symbol of liberty; and the names of the veterans being honored. “When you lay your head down on your pillow tonight, thank God for the freedom you enjoy today and ask God’s protection on all those serving our country across our world,” Hudson said. “May God bless you and may God bless the United States.” The Rev. Curtis Cameron summed up the sentiment of the evening. “All gave some, but some gave all,” Cameron said.