VETERAN’S DAY: Never Forgotten

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Burlington — “Dedicated to the loved and lost veterans of the Burlington area who laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.”

The words above, borrowed from Abraham Lincoln, are inscribed on the recently dedicated veterans’ memorial in Burlington Commons Park.

Three very important figures in American history put their personal stamp of approval on the erection of this monument.

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The memorial, which was dedicated on Oct. 3 of this year, stands as a reminder of Burlington’s lost war heroes.

Chris Saunders, a U.S. Air Force veteran, sparked the push to erect the monument following the death of Theodore “Tuc” Church, an Army chief warrant officer and Burlington native who was shot down in Iraq on Memorial Day in 2007.

“That hit close to home,” Saunders recalled. “When I got to his funeral and saw his kids, it hit me. He’s completely cut off from them. My heart broke for those kids.”

Before the death of Church, however, Saunders and fate became acquainted via the same exact date as the unveiling of the monument: Oct. 3.

While stationed at Charleston AFB in South Carolina in 1991, Saunders noticed some bracelets for sale while visiting the Charleston Naval Base. Each bracelet bore the name and hometown of a U.S. prisoner of war or military member who was missing in action.

He found one memorializing a soldier from Huntington and then started digging for one that was even closer to his southern Ohio home.

“I found one from South Point,” he recalled, noting the soldier’s name, Roger Lee Smith. “Of course, I bought that one immediately.”

After researching Smith, Saunders found out that the helicopter Smith was in was shot down on Oct. 3, 1968 in Vietnam.

“I was born on Oct. 3 in 1970, and this guy was the same rank as me (E-4) when his helicopter went down,” Saunders said. “We had the same rank and hometown and we also shared a common date, Oct. 3. I wore that bracelet for years.”

A few years later, Saunders researched Smith via the Library of Congress and also spoke with his family.

“I have the telegrams his family received,” he began. “One said he was dead and then the next one said he was alive. Then, they got another saying he was dead. Back then, it’s not like they got messages every day. It was a roller coaster ride for his family.”

Smith was identified in 1999 via a single tooth found at the crash site. He was then pronounced killed in action.

Saunders’ preoccupation with Smith turned into action when Church passed away.

With assistance from his community, he helped organize the Burlington Veterans Memorial Tournament in 2007, a 3-on-3 basketball tournament aimed at gathering funds for the monument.

“We just wanted to erect a reminder as a monument to the veterans, but things picked up really fast,” Saunders said.

Congressional Medal of Honor recipients Ernie West (Greenup, Ky.), Woody Williams (Ona, W.Va.) and Ron Rosser (Roseville, Ohio) quickly jumped on board to endorse the event.

“There are only 94 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients alive today, and we had three endorse us,” Saunders stated, adding, “you’re five times more likely to get struck by lightning than to receive this award.”

Referring to the Oct. 3 date of the dedication of the monument, Saunders said it was just a coincidence. “It was simply a scheduling thing, but isn’t it strange that this date keeps popping up?”

Coincidences aside, what impresses Saunders most is the attention and respect living heroes such as West, Williams and Rosser give to a military marker in his tiny hometown.

“President Truman gave Rosser and Williams their medals and told them both he would trade his presidency for their medals,” Saunders said. “That speaks volumes about how precious this award is. Even more amazing is the fact that they lived to receive it. Most receive it posthumously.”

Saunders, an employee of the U.S. Postal Service in Ashland, Ky., praised all three medal recipients for their selflessness.

“Just like when they did what they did to receive this award, they jumped in to help us out and received absolutely nothing for themselves,” he said.

“To them, things like this aren’t about them at all. It’s much bigger than that.”

Anyone with information about fallen veterans or prisoners of war from the Burlington area is encouraged to contact Saunders at (304) 412-4852.