When Ashe County got the call about the park, and the request for veteran participation, County Clerk Ann Clark headed up the local project to coordinate between the county and the park’s planners. The commissioners chose the veteran whose hand would be cast in bronze and four supporting veterans whose hands would be cast in plaster.
Soni Martin, professor of art at Fayetteville State University, and coordinator of the project, said Ashe County was the last of 100 counties to undergo the ceremonial preparation. The original date in December had to be postponed due to weather, and the event had been moved up from Friday of last week to Wednesday to avoid a similar weather forecast.
The five veterans were accompanied by family members, and there were three commissioners present along with the county manager, other county officials, and several interested community members. Martin said it was one of the best attended of those events held around the state. She said there were seven other artists handling the castings, each with 12 counties, and she had 16 counties. At some events, there were no community members and no media, she said. She was pleased to see the turnout at Ashe County’s event.
Martin was also presented a gift of Ashe County cheese by County Manager Dan McMillan. This traditional gift to county visitors was delightedly received by the artist who said she didn’t think any of the other artists had received gifts.
For the artists, Martin said, this project had begun as a job but became an honor as they met and got to know veterans from each of the 100 counties. The stories they had to tell made the project even more meaningful to everyone. The commissioners – Judy Poe, Gerald Price and William Sands – took the opportunity to thank the veterans for their service and for their participation in this project.
One of the veterans chosen for the project, Tobe Gentry, introduced his two brothers Joe and John, and said all of them had over 20 years service in the military and their father served in World War I. Gentry served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. As the veterans sat with their hands in the casting, Gentry broke into a recitation of “Home of the Brave” and everyone stopped what they were doing and grew quiet listening to the moving poem. It was a special moment. He was awarded with applause, and then recited “Letter from Vietnam” to more applause.
WWII Veteran Bill Ballou had been chosen to have his hand cast but his poor health prevented him from sitting for the two hours it took to make the cast. So his son, Larry Ballou, sat for him. As Larry got his left hand set up in the mold, he reached over to his father seated beside him and grasped his father’s left hand with his right and sat there holding on tightly for a moment.
At the other end of the table, the youngest veteran chosen, and the only female, Laura Parunak, a former Apache helicopter pilot who served in Iraq, and WWII veteran Bill Davis clasped their right hands in a handshake as their left ones were set in the molds.
The county commissioners selected Dean Eldreth, who served in the US Army from 1964 to 1972, and who left service with the rank of Captain to represent Ashe County for the bronze casting, which took about 30 minutes to complete.
Eldreth is a native of Ashe County and resides in Jefferson with his wife Eleanor. They have three children, Dean Eldreth Jr., Evalyn Ashley and Theresa Richardson, and 13 grandchildren.
While serving in the Army, Dean served two tours in Vietnam, the first tour as commanding officer of an infantry company and the second tour as a helicopter pilot flying secret missions into Laos. For his service, Dean was awarded the Silver Star Medal for gallantry in action, the Purple Heart, two Bronze Star Medals for valor, the Bronze Star for service, an Army Commendation Medal, a Combat Infantryman Badge, the Good Conduct Medal, the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and Military Aviator Wings.
The project involved casting Eldreth’s right hand, the hand raised when taking the Oath of Service, for the bronze mold. At the same time this mold was taken, the four additional veterans had their hands molded for use in a display that indicates how important support from the community is to every veteran. These four hand castings will be displayed on columns of support indicating that even those who do not serve support the citizens who are or have been members of the military.
Eldreth’s bronze hand casting will represent all veterans from Ashe County, past and present, men and women, living and deceased, from every branch of service.
The North Carolina Veterans Park is scheduled to open on July 4, 2011 in Fayetteville with the bronze cast hands of veterans from each of the state’s 100 counties proudly and prominently displayed. The names of the veterans will be archived in the visitors’ center.
The NC Veterans Park is intended to be a tribute to all of North Carolina’s veterans. It will be a 21st century park, contemporary, unique and bold, and absent of specific recognition to individuals, places or battlegrounds. The primary theme is “a veteran’s journey: life before, during and after service,” and the secondary park theme is “rebirth and healing of people and place.” It is a place for people to reflect and celebrate and a rebirth and healing for an underutilized and environmentally challenged place.
Situated at the crossroads of Highways 87, 24 and 401, the park is four miles from Interstate 95 at 300 Bragg Boulevard, adjacent to the Airborne & Special Operations Museum. It will include a visitor’s center, community lawn and plaza, reflective garden and amphitheater. Bordering historic downtown Fayetteville, the park will serve not only as a reflective and contemplative space, but also as a gathering place to welcome and honor veterans. Officials expect to engage more than 200,000 visitors a year.
Along with the hand castings of local veterans, each county was asked to provide a sample of soil to be incorporated into the building of the columns at the park. A sprinkling of it was also used in the casting of the veterans’ hands. Ashe County’s soil contribution comes from the grounds of the Museum of Ashe County History, the former courthouse where a memorial to veterans stands.
A poem offered by the park planners states:
“From the soils of North Carolina, you left your families and homes. With purpose to serve your country, in service, you made sacrifices. You are our veterans. This is your place to reflect on and share your experiences. To feel pride in your service. Bond with fellow veterans, and heal. Here, may you find support and inspiration to live your lives today. The people of North Carolina honor your service and welcome you home.”