Glasgow Daily Times, Glasgow, KY

Features

July 1, 2014

Roadway sign honors Purple Heart soldier

GLASGOW — North Lucas Road has a new honorary name: Sgt. Justin Wilkerson Memorial Drive.

The sign was unveiled Sunday during a ceremony just down the road from where Justin Wilkerson’s father and paternal grandparents live. Wilkerson, an Army and Kentucky National Guard veteran, died in April 2009 at Fort Knox.

Kentucky Chapter 2 of Rolling Thunder sponsored the placement of the placard, which is the first in Barren County, but part of a project started by the national organization in November to honor deceased recipients of the Purple Heart, which symbolizes injury or death in the line of military duty. The organization covers the cost of the sign and hardware, and it was erected by the county road department with authorization from Barren County Fiscal Court.

Jimmie Dixon, president of the local chapter, said it is an honor Wilkerson is the first local namesake of one of the signs – not only was he a Purple Heart recipient, he was also a member of Rolling Thunder.

Wilkerson’s mother, Kim Lambert; his stepmother, Joyneta Wilkerson; Lambert’s mother, Connie Garrett; and his paternal grandmother, Carol Wilkerson, were each given a cream-colored long-stemmed rose, one of which also laid across the podium. One by one, with Lambert going first, they laid the roses at the base of the sign post.

Colton Kise sang “Soldiers of the Clouds.” Justin Wilkerson’s father, Freddie Joe Wilkerson, said he never gets tired of hearing him perform the song, which he also does as an accompaniment to the ROTC’s remembrance ceremony for prisoners of war and missing-in-action service members.

“How ironic the sky is full of clouds today – along with our soldiers,” Freddie Joe Wilkerson said, referencing the song’s lyrics.

Members of the Barren County High School Jr. ROTC, for which Freddie Joe Wilkerson is co-command sergeant major, began the ceremony with an introduction and prayer.

Ernie Wagoner, commander of Freedom Warriors and a friend of the Wilkersons, helped Allie Grace Wagoner, his granddaughter, lead the Pledge of the Allegiance at the beginning of the event. He said it was an honor to be participate in the ceremony to unveil the sign, which will stand as a reminder of the sacrifice Justin Wilkerson made.

“Everything has been a hard ride for Freddie Joe and the family in getting this Purple Heart,” he said.

It was nearly five years after Justin Wilkerson’s death – and after the third time of submitting the paperwork – that the Purple Heart was awarded to his family members in a ceremony in March.

“On 20 June, 2008, Taliban forces attacked a convoy in which Sgt. Justin Wilkerson was traveling,” said Maj. Gen. Edward Tonini, the adjutant general for the Kentucky National Guard, at the time of the medal presentation. He added that the strike included five rocket-propelled grenades and numerous rounds of small-arms fire.

“As a result, Sgt. Wilkerson suffered mild traumatic brain injury. He was subsequently evacuated from Afghanistan and later assigned to the Warrior Transition Battalion located at Fort Knox. Justin is no longer with us,” Tonini said.

When Justin Wilkerson died, in addition to the TBI, he had post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and severe depression, and he was taking several medications. His cause of death was determined to be hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease complicated by mixed drug toxicity, according to military documents obtained by his father.

Wagoner and Barren County Judge-Executive Davie Greer said Sunday that it said a lot about Justin and his family that so many turned out for the dedication of the road sign – approximately 50 to 60 people. They had gathered in the lawn of Peters Creek Missionary Baptist Church, which Justin had attended as a boy. The sign is in the right-of-way along North Lucas Road, which the church faces, just a few feet from where the county road intersects with Ky. 1318.

Afterward, Joyneta Wilkerson said Justin’s two sons will be able to see the tribute to their father whenever they come to visit.

Freddie Joe Wilkerson said he was thankful Rolling Thunder and the fiscal court members “took the initiative to take the level of remembrance higher.”

Although the sign doesn’t actually change anything, “it’s a little something that means a lot,” he said.

Dixon said he loved that they could honor Justin Wilkerson this way, and he knows of at least two other families who would like for their loved ones who received Purple Hearts to memorialized the same way. The cost of just more than $100 to Rolling Thunder is relatively inexpensive, he said.

The goal is to place the signs somewhere meaningful in relation to the life of the deceased or his family members. Some want the signage along state roads, and that permission is yet to be obtained, he said.

“It’s not a huge monument, but it’s a monument the family members can keep close to their hearts,” Dixon said.

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