MARSHALL - Madison residents will soon have a designated spot to celebrate and honor current and former armed forces members, as the county commissioners approved a lease to the county Veterans of Foreign Wars for a veterans park in Marshall.
The Madison County commissioners approved a 10-year lease to the Veterans of Foreign Wars for a piece of property in Marshall's Medical Park Drive facility, the road on which the Sheriff's Office, magistrate, county health department and Hot Springs Health Program sit.
The veterans park is planned for the middle tract of land, fixed between the Sheriff's Office and Hot Springs Health Program, according to BOC Vice Chair Michael Garrison.
The idea for the park comes from Chris Ledford, who has been commander of Mars Hill VFW Post 5483 since 2007.
Ledford said he first attempted to bring the idea for a veterans park to the commissioners 10 years ago. This time around, he worked with former Madison BOC Vice Chair Craig Goforth and former Interim County Manager Norris Gentry, as well as current BOC Vice Chair Michael Garrison.
According to Ledford, during his first attempt at establishing a veterans park in the county, he faced obstacles in finding a location, as the planned spot for the park, at the I-26 Welcome Center in Mars Hill, was owned by the state Department of Transportation.
Ledford said he and the team are working with architect Jason Gilliland from Site Design Studio for the site plans, which are still in the design stage.
When the plans are finalized, Ledford will then take the site plans to the commissioners.
But after all the hard work, the news of the veterans park finally getting off the ground is music to Ledford's ears.
"I'm extremely excited, because it has been a rough road," Ledford said. "I've tried to do this time and time again, but not many people really showed too much interest. Norris, Craig and Garrison have been instrumental in sitting down with me. The county itself, and the new commissioners, have been extremely helpful by donating the land. Everything just kind of clicked this time."
Ledford said the veterans park will "not be a memorial," adding that he and the design team will aim to make the park more lively than simply supplying a list of names on a monument.
"I'm really just wanting something that's going to look nice, and I want it to be powerful. I don't want anybody to come up over the hill and just see a bunch of tombstone-looking stuff with names on a piece of granite," Ledford said. "One of my plans is we will sell bricks, and people can put a name of a loved one who's a veteran. I want it to honor all veterans. I'm trying to do it to where people, if they have a loved one, or they were in the service, they can get a brick and that will all be displayed there."
According to Ledford, he and the team will aim to honor and recognize not only local veterans, but their families as well.
"When we get my plan all finished, there will be different sections of it, because it's a lot more than just veterans that are affected when people go off to war," Ledford said. "We're going to have a section for mothers, and call it the 'Gold Star' for mothers and fathers and people that have lost sons and daughters.
"I want it to be something powerful, to make people think about the sacrifices that people make for us to live in the country that we do. Of course, we want to remember the people that gave their all. Just because somebody is in the service sometimes, not everybody has to go to war. But when someone signs up and goes into the service, that's honorable."
According to the census bureau, the county had 1,462 veterans from 2017-2021.
But Veteran Services Coordinator Dan Jackson said the number of veterans is closer to 2,500, and he anticipates that number to grow as the county continues to expand.
"We have a flood of people coming into our county, and our population is growing. There are about 2,500 veterans in our county," Jackson said. "Our percentage in servicing them, so far, is quite good in relationship to some locations. We still have a long road ahead of us to take care of all of them."
Despite this number, Ledford said the Mars Hill VFW's engagement is dwindling, something that he hopes will change with the veterans park coming to the county.
"We're a small post," he said. "We don't have a whole lot of money. I don't expect it to be built overnight. But we've got it started anyway."
Ledford has served with the VFW locally since 2007, when there were more than 120 members. Today, the Mars Hill VFW Post has roughly 12 members. As such, the local VFW will most likely need to raise funds for the park.
"There's not many of us left, but we do try to do things for the community. We go to schools and do presentations trying to build patriotism," Ledford said. "We explain what each fold in the flag represents. We also try our best to take care of disabled veterans, if somebody needs a wheelchair ramp, or stuff like that."
Ledford, who served as a combat engineer with the U.S. Army in the first Gulf War, said the Mars Hill VFW Post 5483 is actively looking for new members, and hopes the park will attract new members to help continue to serve the community's veterans.
"I'm hoping that it will attract other veterans to maybe join the post," Ledford said. "I just wanted something to bring the community together."
For now, he is happy to be planning the county's first veterans park.
"I want this to be something positive that the whole county can be proud of," Ledford said.
For more information on Mars Hill VFW Post 5483, visit the post's Facebook page or call 828-450-3913. The post meets the second and fourth Mondays of the month at 7 p.m. at the Beech Glen Community Center, 2936 Beech Glen Road in Mars Hill.