By Benjamin Cohn
Sandy Mush – Local veterans and supporters of a special project to honor former soldiers from the area, meet monthly at the Sandy Mush Community Center in Leicester. Terri Wells currently spearheads the group’s operation to erect a permanent display honoring local Big Sandy Mush veterans.
Wells, along with community Army veterans and historians Vance Garrett and Bert Abrams, sat down with the Leader recently to discuss their progress. So far, the group has been considering at least two different routes to follow in producing a permanent exhibit.
According to Wells, “we have not made the final decision on that [type of display], but currently, one of the options we’re talking about is … what’s called PhotoTech. It’s a visual image. They [Allegra Printing in Asheville] would take actual images from Sandy Mush veterans and…” use them in the display.
“Maybe we have some old diary entries from people talking about their service. There’s various things. We would create a visual and they [Allegra Printing] would put it on this stuff that’s called PhotoTech. It’s kind of like a wallpaper covering, and it would cover that wall with the visuals. We also have considered doing a walnut engraving, a plaque.”
They estimate the project will cost at least $1,000. To pay for it, Wells said, “we will probably be doing some fundraising.” Garrett spoke next, explaining the origins of their project. Said Garrett, “About two years ago, we had a school reunion here. In attendance was a second World War and Korean War veteran … he suggested to me that we should make this veterans’ memorial. I thought, ‘well yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll try to pursue that.’
“At first I thought it was going to be easy. All we’d have to do is access the government military records, download it and print it out, and we’d have it. Bert told me better from the get-go. I had to learn the hard way that that won’t work.
“The government would not share its information … but they have it. Oh, they have it. The approaches I have made got nowhere. One [organization he tried to go through] was an office on Coxe Avenue in Asheville [Buncombe County Veterans Services, 40 Coxe Avenue]. I ran right up against a stone wall. They tried to help, but… They cited privacy concerns … and I don’t understand that.”
He described the painstaking process required to find and vet all of the names they’d like to include on the registry.
“We’re having to do it the hard way from having people known personally by me and other people in the community we knew were in the service. Also, individual family members can contribute information. We solicit information when we have opportunities. [It’s been] a lot bigger deal than I thought it would be when I first decided to pursue it.
“I had a lot of very good help from people like Bert, and a few other people in the community who are gifted at Google searches and whatever, who can come up with all kinds of information I wouldn’t even [have] thought would be available. We do come up with some [new names of veterans] on internet searches, but there are a lot of gaps in it. I don’t think there are a lot more [names to be discovered], but there are bound to be some more.
“We can easily come up with some names, like Major General Albert Boyd [a famous Big Sandy Mush Airman known as the Father of Modern Flight Testing] and some Revolutionary War veterans. Bert found one of them who is buried in Texas. We have two buried over here [gravesite atop a hill behind SMCC] and, of course, there are a lot of Civil War vets, one [from the] Spanish-American War, one [from the] War of 1812.
Abrams then cut in to explain some of his process.
“It always amazed me how, and this serves as a plus for Vance and me both, we were born and raised with old people. We fell into the category of, Vance knew a lot [of veterans], and I did, too, of World War I. When you get into World War II, Vance knew [so many veterans] that it was just unbelievable. He was born and raised in this valley, and you knew most of them. But the trick to the Civil War was, I always thought there were a lot of [local] people in it. You’re getting into it and this really gets [to be] a bag of worms. For example, the 29th Regiment … they only list the person’s two first initials. Now that is a bag of worms.”
Garrett mentioned another compounding difficulty, the fact that many of the veterans “have the same last names.” Finally, after years of trial and error, Abrams discovered the simplest and most efficient way of finding and vetting names of veterans to be included.
He said, “I stumbled across this, the best resource … I didn’t know it existed, find the grave. When you go into some of the people who’s buried over here … you put in that guy’s [potential Sandy Mush veteran] name [into an internet search] and it lists his children. Somebody’s put it on the web somewhere. It lists his [children] by name and date of birth and death. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out, ‘hey, that guy’s in the war.’”
Abrams, Garrett and Wells are asking for assistance from the public to complete their list of Big Sandy Mush veterans.
In an email, Wells defined these criteria as “veterans who have resided in Big Sandy Mush at some point from birth to final resting place.” Further, she explained the region of Big Sandy Mush as including, “the top of Early’s Mountain to [the] head of Beaverdam Mountain to where Sandy Mush Creek Road meets Highway 63.
“We include persons who served in the active military, naval or air service who were discharged or released from there under conditions other than dishonorable. We are also including those who served in the National Guard or Reserves.
“The information we need is the complete name of the veteran and preference for how to display the name, branch of service, name of war if served during wartime, date of birth, any military document of record, any record showing residency in Big Sandy Mush and contact email/phone of person submitting the information so we can follow up.”
Those with names of veterans who meet the group’s criteria for inclusion are encouraged to contact Wells by email. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The list currently has about 250 names of veterans who served from the Revolutionary War up through the modern day.