Lighting of eternal flame completes memorial

By Thomas Wilson

   Scores of local residents attended a Memorial Day ceremony Monday at the Veterans War Memorial in downtown Elizabethton as the lighting of the eternal flame culminated the memorial's completion.
   Deacon Bowers, chairman of the Veterans War Memorial Committee, welcomed the crowd and lit the eternal flame as dusk settled. The Memorial honors Carter County veterans who gave their lives in wars from World War I through the Operation Noble Eagle invasion of Afghanistan.
   Members of the U.S. Marine Reserves presented colors, and Loretta Bowers performed moving renditions of the patriotic songs "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful".
   The Veterans War Memorial Committee announced plans to build the memorial in January 2002. Groundbreaking ceremonies were held July 4, 2002 after the committee raised more than $250,000 in cash donations and in-kind contributions. The memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2002.
   The ceremony also drew several members of Rolling Thunder, Inc. who lived up to their name rolling into downtown on motorcycles. Scott Golden, president of the Rolling Thunder state chapter, stated Rolling Thunder was not a motorcycle club, but an advocacy group for former prisoners of war and soldiers listed as missing in action.
   "We are mostly made up of veterans," said Golden, a retired U.S. Navy veteran who enlisted in 1974 and was sent to Saigon shortly thereafter.
   He said the group had petitioned the committee to include a POW/MIA flag as part of the memorial but were denied by the committee due to the flag's size. Golden said the national organization's lobbying efforts had paid off in recent years. Particularly, he noted the U.S. military's aggressive move to liberate POWs during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
   "This is the first war in our history that every soldier is accounted for," said Golden. "They are not going to be able to build a monument and walk away any more."
   Legislation written by Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., called the "Bring Them Home Alive Act" became law three years ago and established political asylum for a foreign national who assists in the liberation of American POWs. It was a law, Golden said, that was championed heavily by Rolling Thunder chapters across the nation. Golden cited the Iraqi national who led American forces to rescue Lynch, was granted political asylum in the United States, and is now working in Washington, D.C.
   "America is a promise that we are going to come and get you," said Golden. "We are keepers of that promise."
   The memory of war never strays far from the minds of ex-POWs Sonny Mottern and Wright Swanay, who were among several veterans on hand at the event. Both men were taken prisoner by the German army during World War II, eventually finding each other at a prison camp in Mooseberg, Germany.
   Swanay said the presentation of colors brought back memories that are never far from the surface for combat veterans. "You know what I was thinking of when they raised that flag? I was thinking about when that German flag came down and the American flag went up on the day we were liberated," said Swanay.
   While this year's Memorial Day had received considerable hype after the nation followed Operation Iraqi Freedom, both men candidly said they did not expect to see the nation's enthusiastic embrace of veterans to last long.
   "When you have a war in your living room, it gets your attention," said Mottern. "The soldiers fight, but when it is over they are forgotten."
   World War I claimed the lives of 49 Carter Countians in combat or from combat related injuries. When World War II began, Carter Countians participated in nearly every major engagement in all theaters of operation. There were 155 combat deaths among the 5,000 Carter Countians who served in World War II. The county saw 19 sons die in the Korean War while 30 county residents were lost in combat deaths during the Vietnam conflict.
   During Operation Desert Storm in February 1991, Daniel E. Graybeal of Carter County was killed during the failed landing attempt of a Huey helicopter in Saudi Arabia.
   In December 2001, U.S. Army Special Forces Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis of Watauga was killed in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
   Two names etched on the memorial's stones were of particular significance to one Carter County woman for whom Memorial Day has long been a day of remembrance. Mary Peters was just shy of her 13th birthday when her brother Noah H. Tyree, Jr. was killed in the Korean War. Tyree was only 22 years old when he died. Peters's first cousin, Elbert F. Price, Jr., was a soldier in the U.S. Army when he was killed in combat during the Vietnam War.
   "He was my first cousin, but we were raised like sister and brother," said Peters who took photographs of each stone bearing her family members' names. "He was to get out in three weeks when he was killed."
   Like countless other family members of those killed in action, Peters said she hoped the significance of this Memorial Day instilled a feeling of thankfulness for freedom she feels when she considers the sacrifices her family members made.
   "I hope it will become more important in everybody's life," said Peters, "not just for our local people, but for us all."