Honoring the fallen: Cullman VFW displays 328 crosses ahead of Memorial Day

Members of the Cullman Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2214 on Tuesday held a ceremony presenting 328 handmade crosses displayed along U.S. Highway 31 next to Ed White Jewelers. Each cross bears the name, rank and branch of service of a Cullman County resident killed in action since World War I. (Maggie Darnell for The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Around Memorial Day, drivers traveling along U.S. Highway 31 in north Cullman are greeted by a long line of flags placed along the median. These flags are placed by the Cullman Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 2214. This year, the veterans decided to do even more. Tuesday afternoon, the VFW held a ceremony presenting 328 handmade crosses displayed next to Ed White Jewelers. Each cross bears the name, rank and branch of service of a Cullman County resident killed in action since World War I. 

Vietnam veteran Rick Leigeber came up with the idea last fall, leading the project efforts, as VFW and Ladies’ Auxiliary members cut, assembled and painted all the crosses through winter. He said the crosses represent “every Cullman County hero from World War I to present day.” Leigeber also talked about a highly personal aspect of the project: one of the crosses represents the brother he lost in Vietnam.

“I have a stepbrother who went to Vietnam with me and was killed in action,” he commented. “It’s been in my heart all these years, to remember these guys that came home under the flag while I was able to come home and salute the flag standing up.”

Leigeber said he believes people will enjoy the display and hopes it will help remind people what Memorial Day is all about.

Before the ceremony began, Ken Brown, VFW member and retired Air Force colonel, shared what the display means to him.

“We’re really proud to do this,” said Brown. “A lot of us who are combat veterans in the VFW have known a lot of guys who didn’t come back, so this is a pretty meaningful holiday for us and we just wanted to share it with the public.”

He said the highly visible display might be easier for residents to see and visit than the veterans monument at Sportsman Lake Park (which is where the project workers found the names for the crosses).

Along with the description of the display and the history behind it, Col. Brown issued a press release containing information regarding the VFW’s upcoming Memorial Day events:

“On Thursday of this week, VFW members will gather at the Cullman City Cemetery at 8:30 a.m. and place an American flag on the graves of over 900 veterans buried there. We do this every year as a tribute to our fallen comrades.

“On Friday of this week, VFW members will decorate Highway 31 through Cullman with 225 American flags as a show of patriotism. We do this each year for Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Veterans Day.

“On Saturday, May 23, as we do each year the weekend before Memorial Day, the VFW will hold a memorial ceremony at the pavilion in Veterans Park at Sportsman Lake to honor our fallen. This year, because of the coronavirus, there will be no seating and the program will be very short, consisting of a prayer, brief remarks by the VFW commander and the playing of ‘Taps.’ This will take place at 10 a.m.

“Also on Saturday, from 9 a.m.-3 p.m., VFW members will be at both Cullman Warehouse Discount Grocery Stores conducting a buddy poppy drive to assist local disadvantaged veterans and their families. You will be given a buddy poppy to wear in exchange for any donation you wish to make. One hundred percent of the donations go directly to helping local county veterans, and there is nothing spent on overhead. This year, we are also seeking funds to send local veterans with PTSD to Annapolis, Maryland to receive a shot that minimizes the effects of this condition. The cost of the shot and travel is $1,200 per person. We encourage folks to drop by either WDG location or by the VFW Post and donate to this worthy cause.

“Finally, on Saturday, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., on a first come, first served basis, 250 Chick-fil-A lunches will be given out to veterans and their spouses (adults only, no children) at the VFW Post, at 112 Veterans Drive, next to the Christian bookstore. The lunches have been donated by Mr. Irv Jones, of Connie’s Cottages. He is in the process of building 8-10 small cottage homes for combat veterans in the Crane Hill area of Cullman County. The first of these homes will be complete in late September, and will offer veterans suffering from PTSD and other service-related disabilities a home of their own in a quiet, tranquil country setting. Veterans and their spouses may pick up their free lunches beginning on Saturday at 11 a.m. sharp.”

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Heather Mann