Thursday morning at the dedication of the Military Service Walk along the Chattahoochee River in downtown Columbus, Lisa Laird Morris read her father’s words, written on Nov. 16, 1968.
Soon it will be your birthday; you will be four years old. Both mother and daddy are proud of you for helping mother while daddy is away from home... Lisa, daddy thinks about you and your mother very often. I am most happy to have you and mother as my two girls.”
U.S. Army Maj. Jerry P. Laird was killed in action less than two months later in Vietnam.
Jerry Laird’s words are inscribed on one of eight monuments erected along the path just north of the Dillingham Street Bridge. The monuments honor the service and sacrifice of soldiers and their families from the Civil War to Afghanistan.
Asked what it meant to have her father’s memory and sacrifice honored, Morris wasted no words.
“Everything,” said the Columbus State University Enrollment Services Center representative.
Those who walk along the river will now know of Laird’s sacrifice, but Morris knows her story of loss during the Vietnam era was in not unique in the Columbus-Fort Benning community.
“I think it is important that people realize those serving this country — families, friends, children and grandchildren,” Morris said. “... All of them are willing to serve knowing they could die. There are many, many more.”
The project was spearheaded by the Columbus State University Servant Leadership Program with the support of retired W.C. Bradley Co. Chairman William B. Turner.
Turner, 93, sat on the front row Thursday morning. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and said letters home hold a special meaning to him.
“As a young officer, one of my jobs was to read the letters home to make sure there was no sensitive material,” Turner said. “I read a lot of letters and really got to know what those guys were saying.”
Col. Jack Marr, chief of staff at Fort Benning, had high praise for the effort to honor those who served and died in the nation’s conflicts.
“This does an awesome job of personalizing the sacrifices individuals and families make,” Marr said. “You can hear it in every letter.”
Organizers hope to add additional correspondence as funding becomes available.
Marr said that once people see this, getting additional letters will not be an issue.
“When word gets out on this, I think you will find they will be inundated with requests,” Marr said. “...In my 25 years, I have been to dozens of these memorials, and it never gets easier. But when you see one that was brought by the civilian community, it’s different.”
Two of the memorials feature emails sent from recent conflicts.
Pvt. 1st Class Benjamin J. Park sent his sister Irene Park an email on June 14, 2010 from Kandahar, Afghanistan. He was killed four days later.
“Don’t worry. If anything happens to me you guys will be notified pretty quick ... Please send gummy bears. ...It’s kind of been pretty crazy ... yeah, it sucks. Tell mom and dad I love them. ...”
The theme throughout the walk is simple — freedom is not free.
This quote from 1st Lt. George William Mathews, who was in the 82nd Infantry Division during World War I, is engraved along the walk:
“For him who is spared, life will always be sweeter,” it reads. “For him who in sacrifice must need give his life to further the interest of his country — and by country I mean home, loved ones, and the principles for which the nation stands — for this man I can conceive of no death more glorious.”