HENDERSON — Rusk County residents appeared reverent Monday morning as they celebrated legacies of sacrifice that will be preserved for future generations.
“I read that every veteran standing out here today signed a blank check to the government the day they signed up, and it included their life,” said Vietnam veteran R.D. Wittner, president of the Rusk County Veterans Monument Association.
“That's a lot. It's a lot more than most people are willing to give to anything, let alone their country. Some of us got to get the check back, some didn't, and it's those that didn't that really and truly we need to honor today.”
Wittner also expressed appreciation to people who were involved with the project and encouraged more veterans to add their names to the monument for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“I don't know a veteran who's not proud to be a veteran. Some of us just don't like other people to know it,” he said.
Rusk County Judge Joel Hale, one of the elected officials in attendance, thanked veterans for their service and read a statement that a friend gave him, which reads, “Only two defining forces have offered to die for you — Jesus Christ and the American G.I. One died for your soul, and the other for your freedom.”
When organizers came to the Rusk County Commissioners Court and asked about putting the memorial on the courthouse lawn, there were some people who thought it should be placed somewhere else, Hale said. However, commissioners felt the courthouse lawn was the best place.
“They wanted it to be a focal point for our county because our veterans have sacrificed and laid it on the line for all of us…,” Hale said. “I really didn't visualize it'd be as nice as it is, but it's beautiful.”
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, who served in the Army for four years, also addressed the crowd and presented a long overdue Purple Heart to Douglas Edward Morton. Morton, a Vietnam veteran, also received an American flag that flew over the capitol in Washington, D.C. in his honor.
Gohmert said those who served in Vietnam were not appreciated when they returned home, but it is fantastic that Rusk County is honoring military with this memorial and that Morton is finally receiving his recognition.
Morton, who lives in Kilgore, said Monday was overwhelming for him.
“I just can't get over all of this. It's so much to me to take in because I've never had anything like this happen before,” he said as people lined up to tell him, “Thank you.”
He said he didn't do anything special, and that he and other military members simply did what they were in Vietnam to do.
“It's nothing to be honored for or heroed for…,” he said. “We thought when we got through, maybe it would be over, and there wouldn't be any more killing of our people. That's all.”
After Morton received his Purple Heart, the crowd got a call to action from Lt. Col. Brad Reeves, a Henderson High School graduate who serves as director of operations for the 19th Air Support Operations Squadron at Fort Campbell.
Reeves asked the crowd, “What are you willing to do to serve our country?” He said service to America is for everyone, not only military members and public figures.
“Every American can serve their country. Why? Because it's a privilege. … You'll miss out on the reward of being part of something bigger than yourself,” he said after sharing stories of people who understood it was a privilege to serve.
He said there are three ways people can serve — through time, money or support.
For instance, someone can take five minutes to write an electronic thank you card to a wounded warrior through the Wounded Warrior Project, donate $5 to the project or show support by thanking veterans and those in public service.
Wittner said he hopes residents take all of Monday's speeches to heart and use them to celebrate veterans.
“I hope you celebrate the ones that were past, the ones in the future and all the way through life. I hope y'all remember this,” he told attendees.
Retired Air Force member Bob Baker and his wife, Sherri Baker, said they are pleased that Rusk County is recognizing veterans, especially Vietnam veterans.
Air Force veteran Gary Jarvis said, “It brings back a lot of memories of the Vietnam War and friends that I've lost. This gives me a sense of pride that our country honors our veterans.”