By Matt Ledger
A year after high school, five classmates from Clarendon, Arkansas, formulated a simple plan on a Saturday night in 1958. “On Monday morning, let’s go to the bus station, go to Little Rock and join the Army,” Ardmore’s Ken Crosson recalls. “So five of us went. Four joined the Army, and the other guy joined the Air Force.”
Crosson, as well as other veterans, learned a lesson from military service: Never leave a buddy behind. It’s a creed that continues to shape their civilian lives.
In 1998, the Ardmore Veterans Group began with a half-dozen members who sought a program to honor the service and sacrifice of area veterans. “We wanted to give honor to those who are still serving and to remember those who have passed on,” says Crosson, the group’s president.
The organization received nonprofit status and teamed up with the Ardmore Chamber of Commerce. “Back in those days, our main focus was helping the widows and orphans of veterans,” he says. “Then, we decided to do a memorial walk.”
The veterans started a long-term memorial project, creating 15 to 20 engraved pavers in the first year. Both the project and the organization have grown, adding present-day veterans who have served during conflicts in the Middle East. The 45-member group is not limited to those who live in the city, but includes those living in Giles, Limestone and Madison counties. “Ken Crosson is the driving force behind everything we do,” says Jack Watson, secretary of the Ardmore Veterans Group.
The group hosts three annual events as fundraisers, including a tractor pull in the spring, a chicken stew luncheon in January and a pancake breakfast in March. The proceeds allow the occasional purchase of flags for public events and three annual scholarships. Following the military creed of ‘never leave a buddy behind,’ the group assists area veterans in need, providing a lift chair for an older, disabled veteran and offering support to the widows of other veterans who have passed on.
Earlier this year, Gulf War veteran Ken Chancey helped Crosson remove each of the 375 pavers, which Ken pressure washed in his spare time. It’s a mission to revamp and expand the existing memorial site, honoring both living and deceased veterans. City officials helped by providing crews to clear out overgrown shrubs and by donating a new concrete pad. Many local organizations have donated to the project as well. The sacred site also has water fountain plaques for the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marines and Coast Guard.
The veterans placed three new flag poles at the location. The center flag is the ultimate patriotic symbol that once graced their uniforms. The other two are the Tennessee and Alabama flags, precisely placed on the state line. “It’s a pretty site, and I know that the community enjoys and respects it for what it is,” Crosson says. The bricks include the names of eight veterans killed in action and three who were held as prisoners of war. Each year, the group organizes a Veterans Day program at the memorial site, followed by a luncheon.
Marines have often been called “the few and the proud,” a slogan that could easily apply to the small group of patriots that make up the Ardmore Veterans Group. Here are just a few of their stories:
- The late Gordon C. Davis served in the infantry during WWII. He was captured by the Japanese, survived several diseases and the “Bataan Death March,” and spent nearly four years as a prisoner of war in Osaka, Japan. He weighed 85 pounds when released after the war. Davis met a church volunteer named Margaret during his years of recovery at Walter Reed Hospital. She was part of a group that visited with soldiers weekly. “We’d get cakes for their birthdays and take little treats out there,” Margaret recalls. “My pastor suggested it, but I guess I talked to one of them too long, but he was a good one.” It was love at first sight, and the two married in Davis’ hospital room in 1947.
- Gordon Mitchell retired from the Air Force after a career in weapons loading. He placed bombs and munitions on a variety of planes. He served over a year in Vietnam before completing 20 years of service in 1976. “I was really proud of the Air Force, and if they called me back today I would go,” Mitchell says.
- Deborah Verbeek served in the U.S. Army as an emergency room nurse in a Denver-based military hospital. “We treated a lot of soldiers coming home from Vietnam,” Verbeek says. She’s still cares for patients as a nurse-practitioner.
- Jack Watson joined the U.S. Navy in 1979 as an electrician and spent half his career aboard ships. On his first wedding anniversary, he called his wife from Bahrain during Operation Desert Storm. He later retired in 2000. “It gives you a love for this country,” Watson says. “I’ve been to 34 countries and there is no place better than the U.S. That’s for sure.”
- Kenneth Camp was a heavy machine gunner with the U.S. Marines from 1956 to 1958, spending nine months in the Mediterranean Sea attached to the Sixth Fleet. “Being a Marine gets in your blood, and I think it’s one of the greatest units that we’ve got in our Armed Forces.”
- Oddie Dugger joined the U.S. Army in 1952 as a combat engineer, but found himself on a troop ship for 30 days heading toward Korea. “It wasn’t fun, but we made it,” he says. Dugger spent 17 months ‘in country’ and was involved in the post-war prisoner exchange.
- Ken Crosson retired from the U.S. Army after two tours in Vietnam. His last post was the Redstone Arsenal. He became one of the founding members of the Ardmore Veterans Group and spent the past 20 years as a council member. “I stay busy doing all of that, and it makes me feel like I am still serving,” Crosson says.
(Founding members include Woody Stuart, Deborah Verbeek, Ken Crosson, David Foster, Bill Norman, Oddie Dugger, Dan Taylor and Doc Oliver.)