Paul Serchia, right, with the Military Order of the Purple Heart speaks during Friday’s ceremony. (Brad Hicks/Johnson City Press)
Erwin resident Roy Rigsby received his Purple Heart in 1952 in Korea while serving in the Army. When Rigsby heard a portion of Interstate 26 in Unicoi County was set to be designated as a Purple Heart Trail, he felt compelled to attend the ceremony as he understands the significance of the Purple Heart recognition.
“I thought it was very important that we still honor those that receive the Purple Heart, and for the men and women that are wounded now that’s coming home, I want to honor them also for this,” Rigsby said. “I appreciate what they’re doing, and I appreciate all these other men and women that have received the Purple Heart.”
A reminder of the sacrifices the men and women of the military make while serving their country is now visible just south of the Okolona Exit along I-26. Just ahead of Memorial Day, a ceremony to designate Unicoi County’s portion of the interstate as a Purple Heart Trail was held Friday morning along the road, where a sign has been placed.
“We wanted to put this up as a tribute to those people and a display to the people traveling through this area that Unicoi County honors their veterans,” Unicoi County Commission Vice Chairman Bill Hensley said.
The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the U.S. military who are wounded in combat or to the family members of military servicemen who are killed in combat. The trail was established in 1992 by the Military Order of the Purple Heart to create a symbolic system of roadways to honor medal recipients.
Hensley, who served in the Army from 1959-66, said he sought the County Commission’s passage of a resolution to designate Unicoi County’s portion of I-26 as a Purple Heart Trail a couple of years back. That resolution was approved by the commission and sent to Nashville, and legislators approved the designation last year.
Hensley said Unicoi County is home to several Purple Heart recipients and state Sen. Rusty Crowe and state Sen. Steve Southerland, both of whom attended Friday’s ceremony, were instrumental in seeing that I-26 in Unicoi County received the designation.
Crowe said the designation demonstrates “how proud we are of our Purple Heart veterans from Unicoi County.”
“We’re so proud of our veterans, and we’re really proud of our Purple Heart recipients,” Crowe said. “They cared more about the purpose of liberty and freedom than they did their own lives.”
Southerland said he was “humbled” to see the most scenic stretch of road in the country receive the designation.
“We’d like to thank all the men and women who fought, died and were wounded for our country,” Southerland said.
Along with the senators, several local officials and veterans and Paul Serchia with the Military Order of the Purple Heart attended Friday’s ceremony. Like Rigsby, Serchia received his Purple Heart in the Korean War. He was wounded twice in combat.
“I was just one of the fortunate ones, really,” Serchia said. “I lost many friends in that battle.”
Serchia also said the designation is another way to honor those who have received the Purple Heart.
“It means a lot, especially to the past Purple Heart recipients and their families, and the present,” Serchia said.