CAPE GIRARDEAU — A two-year effort to memorialize fallen southeast Missouri soldiers came to fruition Saturday with the dedication of four highway markers honoring those servicemen.
Nearly 300 people gathered in the Jackson armory to witness the unveiling of signs that bear the names of four servicemen who died while serving in Afghanistan or Iraq on or after Sept. 11, 2001. As part of the Heroes Way Interstate Interchange Program, signs will be placed at interstate interchanges near each fallen soldier's hometown by Thursday evening.
Ross Gartman, a former member of the Missouri National Guard, called the ceremony a fitting tribute to not only the four soldiers but their family members, other military personnel and members of the community.
"I'm ecstatic that this day has finally come," Gartman said after the ceremony. "It hasn't been a surprise that the money has been raised so quickly because of the small communities that get behind this effort. They understand the importance of honoring one of their own."
In addition to the unveiling of the memorial signs, the ceremony included posting of colors, musical tributes and speeches by elected officials and military personnel.
Missouri National Guard Chief of Staff Col. Glenn Hagler said the signs are a way to honor the sacrifices the fallen soldiers made for their country.
"Doing so in this way will become a meaningful tribute to them and their families as well as all (with whom) they have served," Hagler said in his speech. "This memorial, viewed with some perspective and some quiet reflection, will bring us back to the founding principles they so successfully sought to protect: freedom and liberty."
Mandy Davis, whose late husband, Sgt. Robert Davis of Jackson, was among those honored with one of the highway markers, said the signs will serve as a lasting tribute to her husband for their son, Brayden.
"For Brayden it's a great thing," Davis said. "There's not a day that goes by that we don't think about it. He was such a private person, but when this came about I knew it was something he would be OK with."
The idea for Heroes Way began in 2008 when Gartman wanted to find a way to rename the armory after Staff Sgt. Brad Skelton of Gordonville. After a conversation with state Sen. Jason Crowell, the idea grew to focus on the memorial highway signs, and in July 2009 Gov. Jay Nixon signed the bill into law.
The four southeast Missouri soldiers whose signs will be placed along Interstate 55 interchanges are Skelton, whose sign will be placed at exit 96; Cpl. Jeremy Shank of Jackson, whose sign will be near the East Main Street-LaSalle Avenue interchange, exit 102; Davis, whose sign will be near Fruitland, exit 105; and Spc. Blake Hall of East Prairie, whose sign will be at exit 58 near Matthews.
A fee of $2,200 covers the cost of maintenance and two signs placed alongside an exit near the fallen soldier's hometown. Nearly $14,000 has been raised from fundraisers and organizations since early February.
A not-for-profit organization was formed May 20 to manage the funds. Gartman said more than 100 other servicemen and women in the state who qualify under the Heroes Way guidelines should have their signs erected within a few years.
"I'm confident that can be done," Gartman said. "With the success we've had so far in just a few months there's no question the same can be done to honor the memory of other fallen soldiers throughout the state."