GORDONVILLE — A sign on Interstate 55 honors Staff Sgt. Brad Skelton's sacrifice for his country.
Skelton went through life with a grin on his face and an unshakable loyalty for his family, friends and country in his heart, according to one of the soldier's closest comrades.
Skelton had an "unbelievable knack" for one-liners, with the timing of a seasoned comedian, friend and former fellow soldier Ross Gartman said.
But beyond the wise cracks and his "oddball" humor, Skelton was "literally a shirt-off-his-back kind of guy," Gartman said.
"There was not a thing he wouldn't do if he could do it for somebody," said Gartman, of Delta, Mo.
Skelton proved his commitment to his country and his brothers in arms when, after serving one tour of duty in Iraq, the Missouri Army National Guard member signed up for a second stint in the war. The Gordonville soldier was single and didn't have any children. He knew his Cape Girardeau-based 1140th Engineer Battalion needed to fill a certain number of slots, and he knew there were a lot of married dads who could have been called to duty, Gartman said.
"He knew he could fill one of those spots and somebody else wouldn't have to go, so a father with children could stay back. He was putting himself above others again," Gartman said.
Skelton paid with his life. In February 2008, while on a route-clearing mission, he was killed by an improvised explosive device.
Gartman wanted to make sure his friend of 16 years, and all of Missouri's nearly 100 members of the military killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, wouldn't be forgotten, that their sacrifices would be memorialized for thousands to see daily on Missouri's busiest highways.
He worked alongside Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, in drawing legislative support for the Heroes Highway bill, which led to the creation of the Heroes Way Interstate Interchange Program, which honors fallen military with signs marking the interstate interchanges near each fallen soldier's hometown.
Three years after the campaign began, Interstate 55 in Southeast Missouri is marked by six Heroes Way signs — near St. Genevieve, Perryville, Fruitland, Jackson, Cape Girardeau and East Prairie. Skelton's is at Exit 96.
Among those honored is Sgt. Bob Davis. The Jackson soldier died in Afghanistan when a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee, killing him and another Army soldier in August 2005.
Brayden Davis was just a baby when his father died. He never knew his dad, but he knows what the sign at Exit 105 means.
"He and his mom drive by that Fruitland sign all the time, and Brayden looks at her and says, 'That's for my dad,'" Gartman said.
Heroes Way is a growing not-for-profit organization, expanding its reach statewide and aiming to serve as a template for similar programs nationally and internationally.
Gartman said the group is working with an Arkansas senator looking to draft a kind of Heroes Highway bill. He said he's also contacted ambassadors from several countries, including Great Britain, Poland and Australia, members of the coalition prosecuting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to create a Heroes Way International.
"Our overall goal is for Heroes Way to be a national and international organization that raises money for every soldier killed in combat," Gartman said.
While state law allows the signs, it doesn't commit state tax dollars to the program. Contributions cover the $2,200 cost of each highway memorial, including two signs — one for north and south sides, the other viewed by east-west traffic. Only service members killed in combat qualify, and some families have had to cover the cost upfront. Gartman said Heroes Way reimburses the expense.
"We hope to be taking care of all the Missourians by the middle of next year, and focusing on the rest of country after that," he said, referring to the several fallen soldiers still without highway memorials.
The legislature passed an amendment to the current bill expanding the reach. The signs, once limited to Missouri's interstates, may now be placed on state highways, too, allowing coverage of more rural areas where many of the fallen service members' families live.
Heroes Way's five-member board of directors includes Gartman, Jim Shank — father of Cpl. Jeremy Shank who was killed in Iraq in 2006 — and Steve Skelton,Brad Skelton's cousin.
The mission, Gartman said, is to never forget the price Missouri's military service members have paid.
"The idea is giving back to families who have given up so much," he said.