Discussion of renaming a Lee County highway to honor war veterans who were killed was sparked by the public outpouring after Lance Cpl. Steven Sutton was killed last year in Afghanistan. (Special photo)
LEESBURG — Lee County commissioners stand united in their desire to honor Lee Countians who have died while fighting for America in military battles.
They are not united, however, in exactly how to accomplish that mission.
An effort to name all or a portion of U.S. Highway 19 in Lee County as Veterans Memorial Highway resulted in a one-hour emotional and sometimes contentious discussion Tuesday night.
The idea to honor the fallen heroes originated after Lance Cpl. Steven Sutton of Lee County was killed in action in May 26, 2012, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Thousands of Southwest Georgians lined U.S. Highway 19 from Leesburg to Albany as Sutton’s funeral procession traveled from a Leesburg church to Crown Hill Cemetery in Albany on June 6, 2012.
Commissioner Greg Frich initiated the discussion Tuesday night about renaming the highway by noting that an effort is under way to prepare a complete list of all Lee Countians who have died in combat.
“Shame on us for not knowing how many fallen vets we have from Lee County,” Frich said.
After acknowledging the presence of Sutton’s father, Gene Sutton, in the audience, Frich said, “This is not about Steve Sutton. This is not about veterans. This is about Lee Countians who have given the ultimate measure of devotion to our principles, but Steve did some things that were very unique. Steve united our veterans of old with the veterans of today.”
In making a motion, Frich said, “It is abundantly fitting and proper that the ultimate sacrifice made by Lance Cpl. Steven Sutton … and all Lee County military veterans who gave their lives in the defense of these United States be appropriately recognized by naming a road in their memory.”
Frich proposed naming a portion of U.S. 19 from Fourth Street in Leesburg to Ledo Road at the Dougherty County line as Veterans Memorial Highway and that a copy of the resolution be given to the Sutton family.
The motion was seconded by Commissioner Luke Singletary.
Commissioner Ed Duffy immediately offered a substitute motion that supported the re-naming of U.S. 19. Duffy’s motion expanded the impact of the change to stretch from the Sumter County line to Ledo Road.
Duffy said the motion by Frich “looks like we are slighting the people who live from Fourth Street to the Sumter County line.”
“There have been people killed in action who came from Smithville,” Duffy said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”
Duffy’s motion was seconded by Commissioner Dennis Roland, who said he was voicing the concerns of his constituents who have told him that all fallen veterans should be honored, but that special recognition should not be given to Sutton above others who have lost their lives in war.
Former Commissioner Betty Johnson appeared before the commission before the start of the discussion. Johnson, whose father was killed in Italy during World War II, requested that the commission rename the entire stretch of Highway 19 in Lee County.
Singletary, who occasionally acted as a mediator in the discussion, said he had no problem with expanding the renaming from county line to county line.
At that point in the discussion, the commission was basically united in wanting to honor the fallen veterans, but divided by the details. Frich and Muggridge wanted specific dialogue in the resolution honoring Sutton. Duffy and Roland did not want any veteran singled out for singular praise.
Duffy noted that state Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, likely would not offer a resolution to the Georgia Legislature to rename the highway in Lee County if the commission were split in its request for the local legislation.
Muggridge said he was more concerned with the commissioners voting their beliefs over having a unanimous vote.
“We, as a community, need to come up with a way to honor every man and woman who has fought,” Muggridge said. “Something should have been done in 1947. Something should have been done in 1952 and in 1968, but it wasn’t.
“It falls on this board to make the right decision. Regardless of the decision we make tonight, someone’s going to be let down.
“I know the day Steve’s family laid him to rest was perhaps the most memorial day ever in south Georgia. … That celebration of a life needs to be remembered. I think his sacrifice is worthy of honor through this resolution,” Muggridge said. “Us honoring him does not dishonor veterans who came before him. If we do this, we have unfinished business, and that is finding a way to honor every person who paid that price.
“I don’t disagree with anything you said, Mr. Duffy, but I favor the resolution that names Cpl. Sutton and all military veterans because Steve paid the price on our watch and it’s up to us to recognize that.”
Recognizing that the commission was unlikely to come to a unanimous decision Tuesday night, Muggridge suggested that both motions be withdrawn. Frich and Duffy agreed to the request.
At the end of the discussion, the majority of the commission appeared to be OK with expanding the route the entire length of Lee County, but the group remained divided on the matter of honoring the service of Sutton over other fallen veterans.
“Once again, I am not saying what I think or feel,” Roland said. “My objective is to represent the voice of people I talk with. None have been in favor of putting one single name on a resolution. The only resolution I can support is one that has no names on it.”
That brought an emotional response from Gene Sutton, who said he did not understand that reasoning because of the influence his son’s death had in uniting local veterans from different eras.
‘I don’t understand that.” Gene Sutton said. “He brought a lot of people together.”
Ultimately, the commission agreed to allow County Attorney Jimmy Skipper to prepare a proposed resolution that could be voted upon at the panel’s December meeting. There was no specific instructions to Skipper during the public session about whether to spotlight Sutton specifically in the resolution’s wording.
After the road renaming discussion ended, the commission voted unanimously on a separate agenda item that would place signs along U.S. Highway 19 in Lee County honoring all Lee Countians who died in combat duty. That vote was 5-0 and will be done, pending state approval, regardless of the decision on the highway renaming.
Frich said the county has a working list of about 20 names that could be expanded. Veteran groups are working with the commission to make sure all fallen veterans are included.
The commission also voted to change its “Welcome to Lee County” signs and add 2013 Miss Georgia Carly Mathis to the list of local celebrities that already includes Major League Baseball star Buster Posey, county music star Luke Bryan and musician and “American Idol” winner Phillip Phillips. That vote was 5-0.