NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A decade of fighting has claimed the lives of more than 130 members of the military who called Tennessee home, and the loss has felt especially keen in the state's smaller communities.
In towns of less than a thousand residents and affluent bedroom communities, the neighbors of those killed or wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq have proudly found ways to memorialize and recognize their hometown heroes. They've turned out for a silent tribute of waving flags for a grieving family, provided a warm welcome to badly injured veterans and helped solidify Tennessee's reputation as the Volunteer State.
According to a count by The Associated Press, 135 soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen, Airmen and sailors from Tennessee have died and countless more have returned injured.
The first to die was Army Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, whose hometown was Watauga, population 458. The special forces soldier based at Fort Campbell was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan. The most recent death was Sgt. 1st Class Dennis R. Murray of Red Boiling Springs, population 1,112. He died Nov. 21 from wounds caused by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.
Most of those who have died didn't come from Tennessee's largest metropolitan areas of Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga. They left homes in the farming communities of West Tennessee or the rural, scenic counties along the Cumberland Plateau and far into the East Tennessee foothills. Two-thirds of the troops killed hailed from towns of less than 50,000 residents, and half of them came from came from communities with fewer than 25,000 people.
When Overton County Mayor Ron Cyrus joined the Army in 1968 to serve in Vietnam and later in the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm, military service was a tradition in the county. The first battlefield death of an American soldier in Vietnam was Spc. 4 James Tom Davis, from Livingston, who was killed in 1961.
"It was one of these things in the upper Cumberland area and especially in Overton County that it was our duty," he said. "Once you got out of high school, if you weren't going to college, you were going into the military."
Three soldiers killed in the past 10 years claimed Overton County as their home, and the county of just over 22,000 people has found ways to remember their sacrifices. The National Guard armory in Livingston is named after Army National Guardsman Sgt. Robert Wesley Tucker, killed in 2005 in Iraq, and a section of Highway 111 is named after two Marines, Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage and Cpl. Brad McCormick, who died in separate instances in 2004 in Iraq.
In many communities across Tennessee, a military funeral becomes a day for the entire community to grieve and come together in support of the family.
Cheatham County Mayor David McCullough said local police and sheriff's deputies escorted the procession and flags were hung from fire trucks along the road for the funeral for Army Sgt. Gary Reese, from Ashland City, who was killed in 2005 in Iraq.
"We had a procession from Ashland City all the way to Kingston Springs," he said. "That's probably 20 miles."
After Marine Cpl. Kristopher Greer, also of Ashland City, died in 2010 in Afghanistan, part of a major thoroughfare was named for him as a way to show how the former firefighter connected the county and its 39,105 residents, said McCullough.
"We dedicated that road to him because he was involved in the Ashland City fire department as well as the Pegram fire department and we felt like it was a bridge," he said. "It was symbolic as a bridge connecting our communities."
Many-Bears Grinder, the state's veterans affairs commissioner, said even though many people don't have firsthand knowledge of the sacrifice of those in uniform, there is a great effort to acknowledge and understand.
When Grinder's daughter-in-law, Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Billie Jean Grinder was killed in Iraq in 2010, the family was met by supporters at the airport as they brought her body back to Tennessee and the streets of Gallatin, population 30,278, were lined with people waving flags along the funeral procession, she recalled.
"It's the outpouring of acknowledgement and generosity of complete strangers that has been very heart-warming throughout all of this," Grinder said.
Franklin, a wealthy Nashville suburb in Williamson County that's better known as the home of country music celebrities, hasn't been isolated from the loss of hometown troops in the wars. Former mayor Tom Miller lost his son-in-law, Army Master Sgt. James "Tre" Ponder III, 36, during a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2005.
"Even though you don't know those people and they don't know you, it's an honor," Miller said of the support his family received after Ponder's death.
Miller attended several memorial ceremonies at Fort Campbell, Ky., over the past year. The city years ago adopted an infantry company from the 101st Airborne Division, which sustained losses during the 2010-2011 deployment to Afghanistan. Those killed from the unit weren't from Franklin but have been added to the city's downtown war memorial as adopted sons of the city.
Miller said his advice to parents of a soldier getting ready to deploy is the same as what he has heard from many families who have lost a soldier in combat.
"In the worst-case situation, he or she will fall doing what they wanted to do: serving their country," he said. "That seems to be a comfort."
More recently the same communities have been giving similar support to those soldiers who have been returning from war with combat injuries. In Cheatham County, the community helped build a new home for Tennessee National Guard Sgt. Kevin Downs who lost his legs and was badly burned in a Humvee explosion in Iraq in 2005.
And just before Christmas, hundreds came out to welcome home Pfc. Joshua Poteet in his hometown of Pegram. He was wounded in Afghanistan, McCullough said.
"Our community has surrounded these vets, not only with love and prayer, but with tangible things," he said.
With over 500,000 veterans living in Tennessee, continued support for people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will be essential to ensuring success after war, said Grinder. She said just over the Christmas holiday she got a phone call from a local businessman who just wanted to know what he could do to help all the soldiers coming home from Iraq.
"The strong support of the community needs to continue," Grinder said. "It doesn't need to end once they are back on U.S. soil."
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