Bonnie Lamb’s son wasn’t able to be at Friday’s unveiling of the new Johnson City-Washington County Veterans’ Memorial where his name is etched in red granite in honor of his ultimate military sacrifice in Vietnam on May 4, 1970.
The soft-spoken 82-year-old wrapped an American flag in her hands after using it to point to her son’s name. Her grip tightened. And with her voice scaled down to a whisper, she began to weep.
“His name was Floyd Watsel Lamb Jr.,” she said. “He was so young. He was only 20. I was working in the yard when the two officers walked up to me. I saw them coming. I knew. He wrote me all the time, and I still have all his letters. It’s hard. It’s hard to carry on.”
Lamb was among the nearly 1,000 people who jammed into and around Johnson City’s first public veterans’ memorial to reflect, remember and give thanks to the men and women from Washington County who serve or have served in all branches of the military.
People flooded to the site from all directions. By about 10:15 a.m., 45 minutes before the start of the dedication ceremony, police were diverting traffic to other sites where they could park and be bussed in. Guests arrived in attire ranging from fatigues and full military dress to the simplest of street clothes.
Finally, after five years of hard work by the memorial’s executive committee, donors and hundreds of volunteers, the memorial was opened to the public.
At 11 a.m., three rifle shots sounded from the nearby Veterans Administration Cemetery, signaling the start of the ceremony.
“This is a milestone in the history of this community,” said Tim Belisle, committee chairman. “As many of you know, there’s a gentleman who founded this — Bob Sobol.”
Sobol, who passed away last year, is credited with being the first to realize there was an absence of a formal memorial in the area. He also was the first to act. He is responsible for moving ahead with a redesigned memorial at the corner of West Market Street and Veterans Way. His long-held goal was not to glorify war, but to glorify the service and sacrifice of our everyday heroes that have carried the country through its toughest times.
Before the hulking red and black granite panels bearing 1,391 names were unveiled, an American Flag that had flown over the U.S. Capital building and a POW flag were raised.
U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-1st, said a few words.
“A free society is not here because of great newspapers or orators, it’s because of the men and women who have served in the military,” he said. “We have seen a time in our country when our veterans were not treated this way. That’s not the case today.”
Rolling Thunder’s Chapter 4 then conducted a ceremony honoring those missing in action. The traditional empty chair and table symbolizing a veteran’s lonely plight sat off to the side, complete with a lighted candle, upturned glass and a white vase containing a single red rose.
The memorial is part of the redevelopment of Kiwanis Park. A $75,000 donation from Roadrunner Markets and a $50,000 allocation by the city, who also donated the land, helped lay the major groundwork for its construction.
There’s much more planned for the memorial, but it’s going to take time and money. A kiosk is coming in the near future, and a fence surrounding the site also is being considered. As the names continue to mount, more granite panels will be added.
Following the MIA ceremony, black plastic was removed revealing huge concrete shapes covered with red and black granite situated in a large semi circle facing out to an entrance. Above the entrance on an overhead steel structure are the words, “Freedom is not Free.”
Elsie Holley was jubilant. She stood in front of a black granite monument pumping her fist in the air. Holley expressed joy at having three family members’ names, one on top of the other. Each served in World War II. Each served in a different branch of the military. But they all grew up in Johnson City.
Her father, Jacob Lacey Holley, served in the U.S. Navy; his twin brother and her uncle David Lewis Holley, served in the U.S. Marine Corps; and her uncle, John J. Holley served in the U.S. Army.
“It was an awesome ceremony, and in every way,” she said. “I’m jovial, but I’m sad too. They all grew up right over here on Wilson Avenue, so in a way it’s like they’re coming home. I’m just so proud I was able to get them on there.”
Two additional rings of monuments follow the contour of the tallest features in a semi-circular pattern. Gray pavers have been set on walking paths between these areas, and brick has been set that runs from the inner circle, through the entry way and extends out to the edge of the street.
Large concrete blocks also have been placed around the memorial’s outer edge. These are complimented with bronze plaques honoring each of the five branches -- Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard.
The outer two rings have names inscribed on black granite. The inner ring, with the taller red granite structures, are reserved for the names of those who are missing in action or killed in action. The monuments on the outer rings are about 4 feet high. The inner ring’s monuments are up to 8 feet high. The memorial include a gathering plaza for special events that can accommodate up to 250 people.
Hundreds of people roamed in and out of the rings following the ceremony. Some were checking to make sure the names they had submitted made it onto the granite. Others spotted names of people they know, or had known. Old friends reunited and embraced. Family members did the same, though some stood silent, staring at names and reminiscing.
From this point forward, members of the community are welcome to stop in and do the same.