Meridian Star

Local News

August 30, 2013

Hallowed Ground

State veterans cemetery a way to honor soldiers

MERIDIAN —     Honoring service men and women from Mississippi and giving them a final resting place was the goal of veterans and volunteers who joined forces to make the Mississippi Veterans Memorial Cemetery a reality. The 85-acre site opened just a little more than two years ago and since then about 200 veterans and family members have been buried there.

    On Thursday, the volunteer organization that helps support the cemetery, Friends of Mississippi Veterans, gathered for their annual meeting at the serene setting to talk about plans for the future and to honor those who have been laid to rest there.

    Maj. Gen. Leon Collins, adjutant general of Mississippi National Guard, said the cemetery is important to veterans and their families.

    "We give thanks for the lives of those who are buried here. We give thanks for those who will be buried here in the future and we give thanks that they saw fit to serve their country," Collins said. "One might ask, why do you need a military cemetery? I say it's because the world that we live in is a dangerous place and it's full of those who are mean-spirited and those who would do harm to good people. Because we have men and women in this country who are willing to lay down their lives in order to combat that terror, then I think that we should have a place set aside just for them."

    Jack Winstead, president of the Friends of Mississippi Veterans, said it all began with a donation of land from Mississippi State University. Federal grants funded much of the cemetery and Friends of Mississippi Veterans has raised approximately $200,000.

    "Our primary function is to raise money for things you can't do with tax money," Winstead said. "We are constantly looking for new members. Our strongest membership by far is here in central Mississippi, in Newton and Lauderdale counties because of where we are located."

    David Murphy, 63, of Newton is an Army veteran of the Vietnam War. He and his wife plan to be buried at the veterans cemetery.

    "This is our Arlington. This, to us, is equal to Arlington. It's a place of sorrow but it's a place of glory also. It's hallowed ground," Murphy said.

    A new monument will be erected to call attention to what some are calling a sentinel tree in the cemetery — an oak tree thought to be more than 200 years old, according to Randy Reeves, executive director of the Mississippi Veterans Affairs Board.

    "You know what a sentinel is. It stands watch and it stands guard," Reeves said.

    Because of the age of the tree and the period of history through which it has lived, cemetery volunteers decided to preserve it as a living symbol, Reeves said. A  monument will be placed close to the tree.

    "It will signify that that is a sentinel oak, the watch keeper here in this cemetery," Reeves said.

    According to Reeves, part of the monument's inscription will say, "I stand watch over our sons and daughters who lie beneath this sacred Mississippi earth. I represent their strength and honor their courage."

    Congressman Gregg Harper also paid his respects to veterans and their families.

    "How do you ever say thank you to all of our veterans and to those who have gone before us?" Harper asked.

    There are 6,668 service members from the United States who have been killed in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Nearly 100 of those are from Mississippi or have ties to the state, Collins said.

    Collins told the story of a young soldier stationed at an outpost in Afghanistan, who, on July 28, sacrificed his life to save two of his comrades.

    Taliban fighters tried to overrun a base, sparking a fierce fire fight, Collins said. A guard tower at one of the corners of the base was attacked, wounding two guards. The medic on duty was Sgt. Stephen New of the Mississippi National Guard, Second Battalion, Special Forces.

    "Knowing that the soldiers in that tower needed immediate help, he left the security of the building where he was, ran across the battlefield and climbed into that tower," Collins said. "He administered aid to those two soldiers and because of the aid he was able to provide, he saved their lives. However, in the process of doing that, Sgt. New was wounded in the side. His wound was mortal. New laid down his life for his friends, for his family and for his nation."

    Because he was with a Mississippi unit, the Bartlett, Tenn. soldier's name will be added to the Persian Gulf Memorial at the cemetery.

    For more information or to become a volunteer visit online at

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