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Veterans begin new mission

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By Brian Funk, Editor

The short metal shovels had dug foxholes and trenches on battlefields around the world, but on Memorial Day they turned the earth to create a peaceful place to reflect on veterans' service to their country.

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Called entrenchment tools by the military, the folding shovels have been carried by U.S. soldiers for decades, as much a part of their gear as the rifle, helmet and canteen.

They were dented, worn and some of them a little rusty. The olive drab paint was chipped.

But to all of them clung the soil from far-away fields where an American soldier marched, from the front lines of World War II in Europe and the Pacific, to the conflict in Korea, the jungles of Vietnam and the deserts of Iraq and mountains of Afghanistan.

And like the veterans who wielded them to break ground for a new monument in Galax, the shovels were still strong, still able to get the job done.

Monday's groundbreaking was a long time coming for local veterans' organizations and volunteers, who banded together to create a lasting tribute to military service.

Sharon Plichta, a Vietnam veteran and chair of the Veterans Memorial Fund, said at the service that the memorial "brings together and honors all those who are now serving and is a lasting memorial to those who have died in past wars.

"Every man and woman who wears the military uniform of their country continues an unbroken line of courage and service."

With the site chosen and the elaborate 3,600-square-foot memorial mapped out next to the Galax Public Library on West Stuart Drive, local veterans are undertaking a new mission — raising the $475,000 needed to build it.

Local veterans' groups are selling granite pavers to raise money for the memorial. The pavers will line the walkway in and around the structures.

Plichta encouraged the volunteers to be aggressive in raising money to build the memorial as soon as possible. "It is our deep desire to get this memorial erected in a timely manner so that our World War II vets can enjoy it."

The structure will recognize the area's currently serving military personnel and veterans who served in any of the six branches of the nation's armed forces, from the Revolutionary War forward.

At the service on Monday, the granddaughter of former Korean War POW Arthur "Buck" Burcham read a poem about the tribulations prisoners of war have endured while spending "time in and earthly hell."

In the darkest of hours, these prisoners supported each other and "each was like a brother," the poem said.

The next speaker knew firsthand of this experience.

Glenn P. Caudell, a native of Galax and Fries, was a prisoner of war in Japan during World War II.

Caudell thanked those who worked hard on the memorial, and reminisced about his time as a prisoner.

He remembers meeting local veteran Rupert Hampton in the prison camp. "I was surprised to see somebody from so close to home."

There were others from the region that ended up together. Later, a pilot from Radford was shot down and brought to the camp, too.

Though taken out of action while being held prisoner, Caudell got to witness one of the monumental moments of World War II — the firebombing of Tokyo by Allied forces in retaliation for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941.

"I saw the B-29 bombers come in 400 or 600 feet off the ground on the bombing raids," he recalls.

Galax Mayor C.M. Mitchell read portions of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, in which the president urged listeners to dedicate themselves to the unfinished work of soldiers who died in battle and "gave the last full measure of devotion" to their country.

Mitchell said the memorial's purpose is "more than a symbol of fallen heroes or those who worked to protect our freedom and ideals."

It's also a reminder of our responsibility to make sure, as Lincoln said, that "those dead have not died in vain."

Artist Todd Price of Elk Creek designed the monument, and Galax architect Doug Williams fit it onto the site between the main library and the Vaughan Building.

The two flagpoles between the buildings will be relocated and made part of the memorial.

It will consist of three large sections.

A circle of six black granite pillars will represent the six branches of the military in the Honor section, and each will bear a branch insignia.

A large bronze globe on a stone table in the Honor section will allow veterans to identify their areas of service.

The Memory section will include the flagpoles and a reflecting pool and fountain. A single black granite monolith will be engraved with a soaring eagle.

The POW/MIA section includes a granite pillar with an empty chair — the symbol for prisoners of war and those missing in action.

At the service, Price said he was asked to create "a venue for [veterans] to tell your stories and honor your loved ones," and he feels he accomplished that.

"I'm honored and humbled to be in your presence," he told the veterans.

When time came to break ground on Monday, Plichta talked about the entrenching tools as symbols of the armed forces over the ages and of the soldiers who carried them — a tool, not a weapon.

"They have sat dormant in attics and garages" until called back to duty. "We can only imagine how they may have been used to prepare a fighting position or as an aid in safety and comfort of the soldier."

As they once broke ground to defend themselves, Plichta said, "we today dedicate this broken ground in their memory and honor."

With that, the dirt of battlefields around the globe joined with the soil of Galax.

Joining Plichta in the groundbreaking were Caudell and Burcham; Mayor Mitchell and City Manager Keith Holland; American Legion 245 Cmdr. Rodger Jennings; Galax Disabled Veterans Cmdr. Ed Paisley; Carroll Disabled Veterans Cmdr. Roger Wilson; Hillsville VFW 1115 Cmdr. Oscar Hall; Galax VFW 7568 Cmdr. Billy Sexton; Independence VFW 7726 Cmdr. Dan Boyer; and Galax Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 710 President Frank Sayers.

The Rev. Tom Whartenby, a Vietnam veteran, delivered the opening prayer and Linda Bartlett played the National Anthem.

"We are a country at war and we must continue to remember our veterans and the sacrifices that both they and their families continue to make as they serve our country," Plichta said in closing.

"We thank all veterans for their devotion to duty, honor and country."

Inscribed pavers honoring or memorializing veterans are available in two sizes — 5-by-10 inches for $100 and 10-by-10 inches for $300. For more information, send e-mail to veteransmemorial@earthlink.net or visit twincountyveteransmemorial.com.