published Sunday, January 1st, 2012

Hit hard by war, Tennessee towns respond with support

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB

The Iraq War casualty database and website is available at nrcdata.ap.org/casualties/. The Afghanistan database is available at /nrcdata.ap.org/afghancasualties/.


BY THE NUMBERS

According to a count by The Associated Press, 135 soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen, airmen and sailors from Tennessee have died since December 2001. This count is based on Associated Press databases of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These are some statistics about those killed and their hometowns.

• Male and female — Of the 135 troops from Tennessee killed, two were women.

• Enlisted and officers — 18 were officers or warrant officers, 117 were from the enlisted ranks.

• Grand divisions — 46 troops were from East Tennessee, 59 were from Middle Tennessee, 30 were from West Tennessee

• Large cities — 40 troops were from cities with populations of 100,000 or larger.

• Small communities — 67 troops were from towns with populations of 25,000 or less.

• First Tennessee death — Army Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, of Watauga, Tenn. He was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan on Dec. 5, 2001.

• Most recent Tennessee death— Army Sgt. 1st Class Dennis Murray, of Red Boiling Springs, Tenn. He was killed on Nov. 21 in Afghanistan.

• Chattanooga deaths — At least 19 servicemen or women with connections to the Chattanooga region died in Iraq. At least nine have died in Afghanistan.

Source: AP Iraq and Afghanistan military casualty databases, newspaper archives

A decade of fighting has claimed the lives of more than 130 members of the military who called Tennessee home, and the loss has felt especially keen in the state’s smaller communities.

In towns of less than a thousand residents and affluent bedroom communities, the neighbors of those killed or wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq proudly have found ways to memorialize and recognize their hometown heroes. They’ve turned out for a silent tribute of waving flags for a grieving family, provided a warm welcome to badly injured veterans and helped solidify Tennessee’s reputation as the Volunteer State.

According to a count by The Associated Press, 135 soldiers, Marines, Guardsmen, airmen and sailors from Tennessee have died, and countless more have returned injured.

The first to die was Army Master Sgt. Jefferson Donald Davis, whose hometown was Watauga, population 458. The Special Forces soldier based at Fort Campbell was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan.

The most recent death was Sgt. 1st Class Dennis R. Murray, of Red Boiling Springs, population 1,112. He died Nov. 21 from wounds caused by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

Most of those who have died didn’t come from Tennessee’s largest metropolitan areas of Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville or Chattanooga. They left homes in the farming communities of West Tennessee or the rural, scenic counties along the Cumberland Plateau and far into the East Tennessee foothills. Two-thirds of the troops killed hailed from towns of less than 50,000 residents, and half of them came from communities with fewer than 25,000 people.

When Overton County Mayor Ron Cyrus joined the Army in 1968 to serve in Vietnam, military service was a tradition in the county. The first American to die in battle in Vietnam was Spc. 4 James Tom Davis, from Livingston, who was killed in 1961.

“It was one of these things in the upper Cumberland area, and especially in Overton County, that it was our duty,” said Cyrus, who deployed later to the Middle East in Operation Desert Storm. “Once you got out of high school, if you weren’t going to college, you were going into the military.”

Three soldiers killed in the past 10 years claimed Overton County as their home, and the county of just over 22,000 people has found ways to remember their sacrifices. The National Guard armory in Livingston is named after Army National Guardsman Sgt. Robert Wesley Tucker, killed in 2005 in Iraq, and a section of Highway 111 is named after two Marines, Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Savage and Cpl. Brad McCormick, who died in separate incidents in 2004 in Iraq.

Mourning together

In many towns across Tennessee, a military funeral becomes a day for the entire community to grieve and come together in support of the family.

Cheatham County Mayor David McCullough said local police and sheriff’s deputies escorted the procession and flags were hung from firetrucks along the road for the funeral of Army Sgt. Gary Reese, of Ashland City, who was killed in 2005 in Iraq.

“We had a procession from Ashland City all the way to Kingston Springs,” he said. “That’s probably 20 miles.”

After Marine Cpl. Kristopher Greer, also of Ashland City, died in 2010 in Afghanistan, part of a major thoroughfare was named for him as a way to show how the former firefighter connected the county and its 39,105 residents, said McCullough.

“We dedicated that road to him because he was involved in the Ashland City fire department as well as the Pegram fire department and we felt like it was a bridge,” he said. “It was symbolic as a bridge connecting our communities.”

Many-Bears Grinder, the state’s veterans affairs commissioner, said even though many people don’t have firsthand knowledge of the sacrifice of those in uniform, there is a great effort to acknowledge and understand.

Grinder’s daughter-in-law Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Billie Jean Grinder was killed in Iraq in 2010. As the family brought her body back to Tennessee, they were met by supporters at the airport, and the streets of Gallatin, population 30,278, were lined with people waving flags along the funeral procession, she recalled.

“It’s the outpouring of acknowledgement and generosity of complete strangers that has been very heart-warming throughout all of this,” Grinder said.

Former Franklin Mayor Tom Miller lost his son-in-law, Army Master Sgt. James “Tre” Ponder III, 36, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan in 2005.

“Even though you don’t know those people and they don’t know you, it’s an honor,” Miller said of the support his family received after Ponder’s death.

Miller said his advice to parents of a soldier getting ready to deploy is the same as what he has heard from many families who have lost a soldier in combat.

“In the worst-case situation, he or she will fall doing what they wanted to do: serving their country,” he said. “That seems to be a comfort.”

More recently the same communities have been giving similar support to those soldiers who have been returning from war with combat injuries. In Cheatham County, the community helped build a new home for Tennessee National Guard Sgt. Kevin Downs who lost his legs and was badly burned in a Humvee explosion in Iraq in 2005.

And just before Christmas, hundreds came out to welcome home Pfc. Joshua Poteet in his hometown of Pegram. He was wounded in Afghanistan, McCullough said.

“Our community has surrounded these vets, not only with love and prayer, but with tangible things,” he said.

With more than 500,000 veterans living in Tennessee, continued support for people returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will be essential to ensuring success after war, said Grinder.

Over the Christmas holiday, she got a phone call from a local businessman who wanted to know what he could do to help all the soldiers coming home from Iraq.

“The strong support of the community needs to continue,” Grinder said. “It doesn’t need to end once they are back on U.S. soil.”

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