By Crystal McGough
IRONDALE – Nearly 100 veterans from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War were honored on Saturday, July 16, 2022, at a ceremony held at Classic Car Motoring in Irondale.
The police departments of Irondale, Oneonta, Jefferson County, Leeds, Trussville and Mountain Brook, as well as the State Troopers and Irondale and Leed’s Fire and Rescue departments, all lined the entrance to Classic Car Motoring with lights flashing and an American flag raised high as the veterans were given a police escort to the ceremony.
This event follows the return of these veterans, who are all from Blount County, from their Honor Flight, a trip to Washington D.C., which was funded by the citizens of Blount County.
“For two years, in the peak of Covid, Blount County citizens – no corporations – donated,” Blount County Memorial Museum Curator Amy Rhudy said. “We raised almost $90,000 to send Blount County veterans to Washington D.C.”
The trip allowed 86 veterans and around 70 guardians to visit the nation’s capital. One of the veterans on the Honor Flight was Ron Marsh, whose son works at Classic Car Motoring. Scott Marsh approached his employer, Jeff Baggett, about finding a way to further honor the veterans and Baggett immediately began to formulate a plan.
“It’s not to honor that they fought in the war; it’s to honor when they came back,” Baggett said. “How they were treated, the names that they were called. … It’s unbelievable how they were treated because of the public. We owe them a public apology; it’s past due.”
With tears in his eyes, Baggett described what it means to him when he watches these under-appreciated American heroes look upon the American flag with adoration as they say the Pledge of Allegiance.
“Watch how they look at that flag, how they support that as a team,” he said. “We wonder why our families are broken up; we wonder why our businesses don’t succeed. This was a team. When you are fighting for your life, you work as a team. … That’s how you succeed in life.”
Congressman Gary Palmer spoke during the ceremony about the legacy of the United States Armed Forces and how the veterans sitting before him stood for the ideals of liberty that America was built upon.
“If it weren’t for those who chose to put their lives on the line to serve in the Armed Forces, obviously we wouldn’t have a country,” Palmer said. “One of the kids in here asked me what was my favorite movie; I mean this sincerely, it was the old Walt Disney Davey Crockett … Do you remember that part in Congress where Davey Crockett goes down and argues against the Indian Treaty and he rips up the treaty? Do you remember that he said he tries to figure out what’s right, and then he said, ‘I go ahead’? And then at the end of the movie, he’s the last one standing, swinging his musket. I wanted to be like Davey Crockett.
“What’s missing in our country is we don’t have the right kind of heroes. We don’t look up to the right kind of people. We need the kind of heroes that could be willing to figure out what’s the right thing, and then go do it, all the time. That’s what’s made us the country that we are today, that we’ve had people willing to do that.”
Palmer said he read a lot as a child, and one of his favorite subjects to read about was history. He told the veterans the story of George Washington and the Battle of Trenton, which took place on Dec. 25-26, 1776.
“When the order came, every man got back in the boat and saved our country,” Palmer said. “It wasn’t the brilliance of George Washington; it was the commitment of the common, everyday soldier that has made our country what it is. It was the willingness to obey orders. It was the willingness to endure incredible hardship beyond anything that could reasonably be expected of them. That’s what gave us our country.”
Furthermore, Palmer said that his uncle served during WWII at the Battle of the Bulge. Recently, when a Belgian man, who had been six years old when Germans took his village, contacted his uncle to express his gratitude, Palmer’s uncle responded, “We were just doing our job.”
“That’s the essence of the American military,” Palmer said. “That’s the essence of each one of you. You did your job. … We’re a United States but we are united individuals, and each one of us has a responsibility and whether or not the country can continue this great experiment in liberty depends on our ability as individuals to do our duty.”
After Palmer’s speech, Baggett came back to present each veteran who was present, and many who were not able to be present, with an award he named the “John Wayne Award.”
Baggett said he was inspired to name the award after John Wayne after he asked three of his employees, who were all in their 20s, what the name John Wayne meant to them. They did not know who he was talking about.
Actor John Wayne has stood for decades as an American icon, representing honor and integrity to many.
“This award is called the ‘John Wayne Award’ because they (veterans) can relate to John Wayne,” Baggett said. “The biggest thing I’ve got to say is we’ve got to thank them for the 55 years after the war. It could be a child that they taught … taught them values. We don’t teach values anymore, (but) we’ve got to teach these values back. Yes ma’am, no ma’am, prayer, appreciation. And when you’re wrong, say you’re wrong and say you’re sorry. That’s how we build integrity and that’s what goes with John Wayne.”
The Eastwood Village Chick-fil-A in Irondale sponsored the event with free meals for the veterans, and Evolutia, a company in Birmingham that specializes in reclaimed wood, donated some very special wood for the construction of the awards.
When Baggett reached out to Bart Bicknell with Evolutia, Bicknell told Baggett that his money was “no good” and that he had just received wood from the piers in Mobile Bay that were used during the Vietnam War.
“The blonde color is the heart of the wood,” Baggett told the veterans. “That’s you at 18-years-old or 19-years-old, when you enlisted, or you were drafted. … The darker color of the wood is you today. … It’s what you’ve endured.”
Baggett also reached out to a friend to request around 100 rusty, worn-out horseshoes – ones that showed life. These horseshoes were mounted on top of the wooden blocks.
“Every one of them are different, just like you guys are,” Baggett said. “But that horse wore that shoe. It went through rocks, it went through mud, it went through whatever.”
Just like the wooden piers, the horseshoes tell a story, and so do the United States veterans.
“They are an example of what America was built on and what America needs to be again,” Baggett said. “These are teachers, right here. We need to learn from them while they’re still here.”