They came out in force – young, old, soldiers in uniform, veterans, parents, children, siblings and friends, to honor those who serve and those who won't be coming home.
For the seventh consecutive year, the “Fallen Soldiers March,” designed to remind everyone of the ultimate sacrifice made by Tennessee soldiers, attracted patriots of all stripes. Friday afternoon in the hour before the march began, the line was out the door as people from Wilson County and points near and far came into the Lebanon Armory to sign up for the walk through Lebanon to the Wilson County Fair.
Master Sgt. Jim Williams began the march in 2005 when he returned wounded from combat in Iraq only to find that most of his fellow citizens rarely gave a thought to what soldiers were facing in the war on terror. The first two years Williams marched alone, but each year more people joined him.
Williams said the march, which is now done in eight other states and in Kuwait and Afghanistan, has grown far beyond his expectations. Even a local Cub Scout Troop walked part of the way with this year's marchers. There were at least 100 people marching, and given that the march began with just one man six years ago, its numbers are sure to grow larger each year.
Williams, who delivered a safety talk to marchers before the walk began, was most concerned that everyone be careful in the heat. Like any good commanding officer, Williams said he would being running back and forth along the route – in combat fatigues and boots no less – making sure his troops, be they in uniform or being pushed in strollers, made it to the fairgrounds safely.
He, like anyone who has spent time in Iraq, didn't find the heat too oppressive.
"We've done the march in hotter weather than this," he said. "We've got 14 water points on the route – one every half mile. We have a cool down van, a police escort and an emergency vehicle."
As the Armory filled with marchers, it was clear that most had a reason to be there, whether it was to honor a specific soldier or just because they felt obligated to honor the men and women who gave the last full measure of devotion to defend their rights and freedoms.
Vietnam veteran Bob Spear of Lebanon was there saying it was "just the cause" that had made him want to march. Ken Kackley, president of the Friends of Cedars of Lebanon, was with him. Kackley didn't plan to march, but he had just finished a flag retirement ceremony at Cedars, and he had come to the march to hand out small American flags left over from his ceremony.
Roxanne Davenport of Smyrna had a very personal reason for marching. Her daughter, Billie Jean Grinder, was just 25 years old in 2010 when she lost her life piloting a helicopter in the war zone. Davenport was accompanied by Billie Jean's dad, brother, sister, niece and in-laws, who all came out to march. She was surprised to see a soldier's backpack leaning against the sign up table with a photo of her daughter and her name on it.
"We're here for her," Roxanne Davenport said, tears and extreme pride evident in her voice. Billie Jean's dad, couldn't answer questions about his daughter, his silence bespeaking a pain too great for words.
Rebecca Odum of Lebanon said there are soldiers from her husband's side of the family serving now, but she was there for those who wouldn't be coming home.
"I'm here for all the soldiers. They fought for my freedom, so I can walk in a march to honor the fallen and the ones still serving," she said.
In these times when partisan politics seems to over shadow every thing, Williams makes sure marchers know this event is to honor fallen soldiers, not a soapbox for political viewpoints. In keeping with that, each year the march picks a cause for participants to contribute to as part of the march.
This year's cause is "A Soldier's Child," an organization dedicated to the children left behind by fallen soldiers. Their goal is to honor the memory of the parent by giving a meaningful gift on the birthday of their son or daughter. At the sign up table, the jar for donations to that cause was rapidly filling up.
Sandra Edmonds of Smith County, like most of the participants, had a lot of reasons to join the march. She has two sons — one a recent vet and the other still in uniform – who made her want to walk. She also works at the Tennessee State Veterans Home. She said some of the vets from the home would be manning a water station on the route.
Edmonds was accompanied by her daughter, Keliane Draper, who joined her mother for her brothers' sake. Edmonds best reason for walking was totally in keeping with the event.
"My sons have had 14 friends die in Afghanistan since April," she said. "That's the biggest reason we're here. We wouldn't be anywhere else."
To learn more about march, email Williams at email@example.com or search fallensoldiersmarch on Facebook.
Staff writer Mary Hinds may be reached at 444-3952, ext. 45 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org