Names Of 840 Pay Tribute To Fallen Soldiers

Posted at 5:55 PM, Nov 10, 2017
and last updated 2017-11-13 11:47:58-05

Too consumed in the daily grind, too focused on ourselves, that the only signs we pay attention to are the ones which tell us where we're going. But on Tennessee's Interstate 840, the signs here tell us where we've been. 

"He was just a loving, caring man," Shirley Rowe says about her husband.

Roger Rowe was the first Tennessee National Guardsman to die in Iraq. He would not be the last. 

"Roger was driving and a sniper shot him, got him in the neck," Shirley says holding back tears.

For 14 years Shirley Rowe has lived the pain of being forced to bury the love of her life. 

"It was the saddest day of my life," she says looking at pictures of Roger's funeral from an old newspaper clipping.

Shirley only has pictures to remind herself of the man she lost. But if you look closely on Interstate 840 look closely the signs tell the stories of where we've been. 

"That was the knock that changed our lives. From that day forward," says Gary Reese who lost his son Lee in 2005.

Sgt. Lee Reese along with Sgt. Freddie Hawn and Sgt. Shannon Taylor were all members of the Tennessee National Guard when an IED exploded near their base in Tuz, Iraq. The three men were killed instantly. 

"He's our only child, any pictures or videos that we had of him growing up. All that stuff lost it's meaning instantly," Lee said somberly. 

When Lee died Gary Reese thought he'd only be left with his son's legacy. Little did he know one stretch of Tennessee interstate would give him something back.

"That call to serve passes down from one generation to the next, their blood runs red, white and blue," says Man-Bears Grinder, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Veterans Services.

As a member of the armed services herself, Many-Bears Grinder was grateful when Tennessee lawmakers decided to name Interstate 840 the Tennessee National Guard Parkway in honor of those veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. 

PHOTOS: Names Of 840

"We have to teach our next generation," she said. 

Every bridge, every interchange is dedicated to a soldier. She knows them all. 

"I want people to remember that the names they see represent a person," Commissioner Grinder says. 

One sign on I840 though means more to her than the others.

"There's not a day that goes by I don't think about Billie Jean," she said.

Billie Jean Grinder had just finished her last combat mission in Iraq when her helicopter went down. 

She was 25.

"We never thought the knock would come at our door," Commissioner Grinder says about her daughter-in-law. 

Billie Jean is now one of twenty two national guardsman who share a piece of 840 together.
Many-Bears Grinder is reminded of what she's lost, each time she passes by.

"Every time I go by her sign I make sure I'm in the right lane, I either blow her a kiss, I wave at her, sometimes I smile because it brings back a memory, sometimes it brings tears to my eyes. Sometimes I honk. But I always interact with that sign every time," she says about the sign which now bears Billie Jeans names.

Across 77.2 miles of roadway there are 22 signs, all with the names of Tennessee National Guardsman who died fighting the War on Terror. 

To those left behind by the War in Iraq, like Gary Reese, they are more than just signs.

"It's really what I have left of Lee. I can't take people to see him play in a football game or basketball game, I can take them and show them his bridge named to honor him for 
what he did. It's a sense of pride," Gary said about his son's sign on 840. 

These families can not tell you where the war on terror will take us. But on Interstate 840 they hope the signs remind all of us, of where we've been.