Bledsoe County veterans park introduced today with Veterans Day dedication [photos]

Bledoe County's new veterans park is seen on the courthouse square on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016, in Pikeville, Tenn.

Bledsoe County Veterans Park Board of Directors

The following is a list of the veterans who formed the board of directors to build and oversee development of the park.Ray EvansJamie JohnsonJim HousleyParky LaFayetteSam Rainey Jr.Philip EarlyJohn HargisTommy Nipper

A veteran who received nine Purple Hearts will help dedicate a new veterans park today on the Bledsoe County Courthouse square in Pikeville, Tenn.

Keynote speaker Stephen Holloway, a 68-year-old Vietnam veteran and prisoner of war who received 57 medals, said the park represents not just the soldiers but, more importantly, their sacrifices and why they made them.

For Nebraska-native and Hixson resident Holloway, it's not for a government. It's as simple as the piece of the Earth he calls home.

"It's my country," he said, emotion brimming in his voice on Thursday. "I'm proud of these people.

"And no matter who is president, they tell me to go to war, I'm going," he said. "Every man should be able to do his part."

After 27 months of combat with the U.S. Army Special Forces 101st Airborne and two years in a prisoner-of-war camp, Holloway is proud to speak about his fellow veterans.

"I'm not much of a speaker. I'm going to stand up there and say a few words. I haven't done this since I got back from Vietnam," he said.

The park - some of the finishing details being added as recently as Monday - is a 6,400-square-foot centerpiece to the downtown area's ongoing renovation that honors Bledsoe County's military veterans and those outside the county.

Ray Evans, a member of the Bledsoe County Veterans Park directors board, said the ongoing project is ready for its reveal to the veterans it honors and the families of those veterans it memorializes.

The project, which broke ground in 2014, was done with donations, fundraisers and in-kind work that involved dozens of residents, scores of businesses from all over the region and veterans groups from inside and outside the county, Evans said Thursday. Evans served from 1960-1966 in the 30th Armored Division of the Army National Guard.

Evans said the park arose from a conversation in 2013 between Pikeville Mayor Phil Cagle and a group of local veterans who were interested in building a park. Evans said Cagle suggested the property of the former Fabric House at the south end of the courthouse square as a home for the park.

The group of veterans quickly organized and sought nonprofit tax status to begin fundraising and the project was off and running, Evans said.

"We had a local veteran, Thom Williams, who did the artist's rendering of it," Evans said. Architects used sketches to create the final plan to use for the construction project.

"More people have been involved in this than anything I've been involved in," said Evans, who was instrumental in the acquisition and renovation of the railroad depot in Cleveland, Tenn., several years ago. Evans was serving as executive director of the Southeast Tennessee Human Resources Agency at the time.

"It's something that's been needed here for years and years and years," Evans said. "They're already visiting and we just finished up Monday putting the granite in."

Evans and fellow park board member John Hargis say people from all over the United States already seek out the park. Sometimes they can be seen at night with flashlights looking for names on the memorial stones.

"This will be a project that never ends," Evans said solemnly. "As long as the United States has a government, there'll be people giving their lives in service."

Holloway - awarded the Bronze Star, two Silver Stars, three Army Commendation medals, air medals, three Presidential Unit Citations and a long list of others - was injured repeatedly during the Tet Offensive, earning four Purple Hearts in two tours in Vietnam. After recovering, he got 20 days leave at home before he was sent back to the 101st Airborne.

Back in Vietnam, Holloway and other soldiers were aboard a helicopter when it was hit, killing the pilot. The helicopter was about 600 feet in the air.

"I tried to land the helicopter but I crashed it," he said. "But I got it on the ground and didn't kill anybody."

Despite artificial parts in his arms and legs, surgically rebuilt hands and a long rehabilitation, Holloway has no regrets.

"Everything was worth it to me," he said. "The only thing I miss is my guys."

And that's what the veterans park is all about; so even those who didn't know the "guys" will always remember them.

As the park is dedicated today, two more stones lie in Cookeville, Evans said, ready to be engraved with names being gathered now.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569.