Texas Veterans Land Board members decided Thursday to remove the late Samuel M. Garrison Jr.'s name from the Texas State Veterans Home in Tyler after investigating and confirming publicized reports he was not a Tuskegee Airman as claimed.
State officials said Garrison, who died in 2011 at 88, was a serviceman during World War II, but not in the capacity he described publicly.
“Sgt. Garrison did serve admirably, but he was not a Tuskegee Airman,” spokesman Jim Suydam said. “He was a cargo checker in his military occupation.”
At the time of his death, Garrison was a locally celebrated war hero, who sported a bright red jacket laden with medals and spouted colorful war stories of his adventures as a Tuskegee P-38 fighter pilot downing enemy aircraft.
His stories apparently allowed him to fabricate a past as a Tuskegee pilot, an elite military officer and war hero, who was honored locally at receptions and again posthumously with his name displayed on the new Watkins-Logan-Garrison Texas State Veterans Home.
State officials said Thursday they agreed to include Garrison's name on their new facility after receiving a request from the community.
In the weeks following the November naming of the new veteran's home, the Tyler Morning Telegraph received public inquiries questioning the accuracy of his service record.
State officials decided to launch their own investigation before initiating a name change and put the issue to rest Thursday after voting to rename the center.
“The name will be the Watkins-Logan Texas State Veterans Home,” Jerry Patterson, Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office and Texas Veterans Land Board, said.
The two remaining documented service members include Travis Earl Watkins, an Army master sergeant posthumously awarded with the Medal of Honor on Sept. 3, 1950, for sacrificing himself to save the lives of his men; and James Marion Logan, an Army technical sergeant awarded the Medal of Honor on Sept. 9, 1943 after capturing a German gun emplacement, or group of shooters, and killing an enemy sniper.
Tyler's new veterans' home is the agency's eighth and viewed as the flagship for long-term care, Suydam said.
State officials are calling the reasons behind name change unprecedented.
“This is the first time in selecting a name(s) for our homes where there has been a validity issue concerning a nominee's military service,” Veterans Liaison Ken Wallingford said in a July 26 memo to the land board. “As a result of our own investigation we have confirmed that he did receive an honorable discharge. His rank was sergeant not captain.”
And his specialty was checking cargo, not downing enemy aircraft, records show.
Photographs of Garrison at local social events show him wearing a variety of other medals: Legion of Merit, Philippine Republic Presidential Unit Citation, Air Force Commendation Medal, European African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, Air Force Good Conduct Medal, American Campaign Medal, Philippine Liberation Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and a Civilian Service in Vietnam Medal.
His widow, Willie “Cookie” Garrison, said in May that her husband, whom she married late in life, ordered most of those medals off the Internet, claiming he'd lost them while moving.
State officials said their research revealed Garrison received only three of the awards he claimed.
“His decorations and awards included the Philippine Liberation Ribbon with Engagement Star, Asiatic Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and a Good Conduct Medal,” Suydam said. “He did not earn two Silver Stars or Bronze Stars.”
The awards Garrison received were given to all service members who participated honorably in the war campaigns, records show.
While it's evident Garrison did serve the country honorably, misrepresenting his wartime role is not appropriate or deserving of having his name on a home for veterans, state officials said Thursday.
It's unclear when Garrison's name is to be removed from the monument and other items.
State officials said they likely will contract with an outside firm to perform the monument work, which also could entail repositioning the other names to close the gap.
Garrison, a native of Baton Rouge, La., moved to Tyler about 1994, telling residents he had experience in civil engineering. He became active in local politics, but he made no public claims of having a storied past as an airman.
Mrs. Garrison said she didn't know a lot about her husband when they married in 2003 and he never mentioned his military past until Barack Obama was elected president, and Garrison expressed a desire to attend the 2009 inauguration with other Tuskegee Airmen.
Garrison began telling her and others he was a Tuskegee pilot who trained at Tuskegee Army Air Corps in Tuskegee, Ala., before serving the Air Force Unit 99th Pursuit Squadron and Air Force 332nd Fighter Group.
Tuskegee Airmen, known also as “Red Tails,” served valiantly in World War II, but in the days of segregation, their contributions largely escaped honor and public accolades.
His widow said he began collecting and wearing a variety of medals, including the Silver Star.
He claimed to be a captain yet wore colonel's wings, and told stories about being a pilot who single-handedly took 10 enemy planes out of commission — an unheard of tally among those who served in the Tuskegee organization.
No records were located to support the claim, and Garrison was unable to provide even the most basic information or service records explaining his role, Tuskegee officials said.
“Our records show that only one Silver Star was awarded to a Tuskegee Airman, our commander, Col. B.O. Davis,” George Hardy, an original Tuskegee Airman and chairman of the Harry A. Sheppard Research Committee, said earlier by email.
Tuskegee Airman Inc. maintains a database of Tuskegee Airmen and their missions, compiled from military archives, documents and researchers.
There are more than 16,000 names in the database, from pilots and bombers to maintenance and cooks, but Garrison's name is nowhere to be found, officials said.
People who seemed to know him best, his wife of seven years and his adult daughter, Lorran Garrison-Tracy, 37, of California, did not return messages left Thursday seeking comment on the land board's decision.
Mrs. Garrison said earlier her husband's behavior had grown erratic in recent years and he may have been experiencing symptoms of Alzheimer's disease; Ms. Tracy said she grew up hearing his colorful war stories, which changed at each telling, and was disappointed by some information she learned about him.
Community reactions to the board's ruling varied.
Dr. Kirk Calhoun, president of The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler, helped lobby for the veterans home and secure land for it.
Hospital spokeswoman Toni Moore said Thursday he was out of town on business and would be unavailable to talk about the ruling.
Tyler and Smith County officials, which issued Sam Garrison Day proclamations, also declined to comment.
An official with the Historic Aviation Memorial Museum, which featured Garrison in a fundraiser benefiting Tuskegee Airmen Inc., said she believed the board's decision was appropriate.
“Under the circumstances, it's probably best,” board president Carolyn Verver said. “I don't think they (land board) had a lot of choices.”