Heroes exist. The freedoms we enjoy daily provide evidence of their existence. Many of those heroes we encounter in our everyday lives, often without knowing it. Many more are far away from home; duty-bound to defend the United States of America’s way of life and the freedom its citizens enjoy.
That freedom, however, was not and is not free. It was, and still is, paid for by the sacrifice and blood of those heroes – men and women of the military – who stood up in the face of tyranny and challenge with valor, bravery, and honor; and did so with pride knowing what the cost might ultimately be. That they did this for others like you and me, and thought not of what it might cost them, absolutely and convincingly makes them heroes.
Kingsport has heroes, past and present. Since World War I, thousands of Kingsport area natives have proudly served in the U.S. Military with more than 370 of those brave men and women having paid the ultimate sacrifice, ensuring that theirs and future generations could enjoy the American way of life.
Realizing that Kingsport had no memorial honoring its military heroes from World War I onward, Kingsport Tomorrow, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization whose mission included improving Kingsport’s community through partnerships with its citizens and businesses, led by Executive Director Susan LaGuardia , took the lead on the project and began advancing the discussion of creating such a memorial.
Among LaGuardia’s first steps were a series of community outreach efforts, including a workshop held on August 28, 2005, that sought to answer questions such as what should be the purpose of the memorial? What should its major features be? How will funding and ongoing expenses be provided? And how should Kingsport organize to make a memorial park reality?
Assisted by the feedback and direction provided from the workshop, a committee was established to further explore the interest and feasibility of a veterans memorial. Chaired by retired United States Army Major Jim Erwin, and with continued support provided by LaGuardia and Kingsport Tomorrow, the Kingsport Veterans Memorial Committee was comprised of community leaders and interested citizens, the vast majority of whom were veterans.
Over the next several months, and often meeting multiple times a month, the Kingsport Veterans Committee diligently set about establishing a project timeline, exploring potential sites, selecting an architect, reviewing designs, establishing estimated costs, fundraising, and selecting a contractor. The work to be done was great, but fueled by its vision for honoring Kingsport’s veterans and powered by the spirit and enthusiasm of a community ready to help make their vision a reality the dedicated committee moved forward. Over the course of three years they would continue meeting, working and striving to make the memorial a reality.
After considering several sites for the veterans memorial, J. Fred Johnson Park was selected and in November 2006, Kingsport’s Board of Mayor and Alderman approved the committee’s selection of J. Fred Johnson Park as the location for the memorial.
Designed by Kingsport Architect Jim Henderson, the memorial includes a center plaza featuring six 7-foot-tall granite tablets each dedicated to a war from World War I to the more recent Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Each tablet features the names of Kingsport’s fallen soldiers on one side and a map of that particular war’s theater of operations on the other. Granite pavers, each bearing the name of a Kingsport veteran – living or deceased – line the sides of the two “Walk of Honor” walkways on each side leading up to the memorial plaza, an area that also includes benches and a center flag that remains illuminated at all times.
With conceptual drawings of the proposed veterans memorial in-hand, the Kingsport Veterans Memorial Committee moved forward with fundraising efforts to cover the cost of the estimated $700,000 project. This would prove to be no easy task as the United States was entering a period of recession and economic downturn that saw many residents and businesses being much more conservative and judicious with their funds in fear of economic conditions becoming worse.
By the time the official groundbreaking was held on February 5, 2008, more than $600,000 had been raised through the determination and hard work of the Veterans Memorial Fundraising Subcommittee led by veterans John McKinley (rear admiral, United States Navy Reserve, retired), Jim Erwin, Herb V. Ladley (captain, United States Navy, retired), and joined by Susan LaGuardia. Their fundraising efforts consisted of seeking the support of area businesses in addition to the families and individuals who would support the project. Eastman Chemical Company led with a substantial donation opening the door for other businesses to follow. Pavers and benches made of granite were also sold, and events such as golf tournaments and participation in an annual Liberty Celebration helped raise needed funds.
It should be noted that the fundraising subcommittee was led and inspired by members of the overall Kingsport Veterans Memorial Committee contributing roughly $100,000 of their own personal funds to breathe life into the project.
So successful were the sales of the granite pavers that by March 2008 all available pavers had been bought and their wording approved. From this point forward, a waiting list was established for those wishing to purchase pavers in honor or memory of a veteran. More than 300 names would be placed on this waiting list.
Over the next several months, final design and site preparation took place and the project, with a few minor modifications, began to take shape. On July 21, 2008, GoinsRashCain (GRC), Inc. officially began construction.
During this time, a memory box was built to store letters to the veterans featured in the memorial from members of the community, including those on the Kingsport Veterans Memorial Subcommittee. The memory box would serve as both a sense of closure for those who served in wartime and as a sense of ownership for those who supported the veterans memorial project. Filled with letters, cards and other keepsake items sealed inside, the container was buried under the plaza by the committee on September 8, 2008.
Featuring amazing detail, inspiring design, and comprised of more than 550,000 pounds of red, white, blue and standard granite, the memorial approached completion under the eager, anxious eye of area citizens and the many veterans who call Kingsport home.
The final bit of funding for the Kingsport Veterans Memorial was made possible by the City of Kingsport when the project cost of the memorial rose unexpectedly to a total of $862,000 due to the escalating expense of construction materials and resources during a tough, challenging economic period. During a regular business meeting on November 4, 2008, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman, led by Mayor Dennis Phillips, voted unanimously to donate $248,000 to the Veterans Memorial Project, thus, covering all remaining expenses.
On November 11, 2008, Veterans Day, with several hundred people gathered in attendance, many of whom were veterans, Kingsport Tomorrow organized and hosted a dedication ceremony for the completed Kingsport Veterans Memorial. The event featured the same attention to detail befitting of a well-prepared, well-trained soldier honoring all who served and remembering those who gave all.
“I’ve shed some tears. This is absolutely wonderful,” said Martha Rector, retired United States Marine tech sergeant, World War II veteran, and Kingsport Veterans Memorial Committee member. “It’s been an enormous satisfaction for us to be able to do this, and we had such really dedicated people working on this. I’m just so thankful.”1
In delivering his special remarks to commemorate the completion of the memorial and to honor all the veterans it represents, plus all those in attendance, State of Tennessee Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner John A. Keys said, “This site is indeed hallowed ground. It will serve as an educational tool and a sign that will endure for all veterans.”2
Heroes do exist. Their names are written within the sacred confines of the memorial. A memorial that also pays tribute and honor to the many more whose names are not listed, but are found within our community, both active and retired.
1 Lane, Matthew. “Kingsport Dedicates Veterans Memorial.” Kingsport Times-News; 11 November, 2008
2 Lane, Matthew. “Kingsport Dedicates Veterans Memorial.” Kingsport Times-News; 11 November, 2008