Editor’s Note — Throughout the month of July, this series will take a look at the stories behind the names that are memorialized on several of Scott County’s bridges. July is the month in which America celebrates her independence and freedom, and many of those who have had bridges named after them in Scott County have served their community and their nation faithfully in either the armed forces or law enforcement. The series began last week with the Col. Joe Cecil bridge over New River.
“All the attention, Rusty was worthy of it.”
That’s how Michael Ray Jeffers, then pastor of Fairview Missionary Baptist Church, described the outpouring of grief and support after U.S. Marine Cpl. Rusty Washam was killed in action near Al Qa’im, Iraq on Feb. 14, 2006.
The Baker Highway bridge over Buffalo Creek east of Huntsville has since been named the Cpl. Rusty Lee Washam Memorial Bridge. Thousands of vehicles cross the bridge daily — including every person entering or leaving Scott County by way of Interstate 75 — and it stands as a testament to the ultimate sacrifice paid by Cpl. Washam as America toppled the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and worked to establish peace for the Iraqi people as part of the fallout from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But on that Valentines Day in 2006, having a bridge named after him couldn’t have been anywhere near Cpl. Washam’s mind. He was concentrating on finishing his second tour of duty in the War on Terror and returning home to his native Scott County. In fact, he was just weeks away from doing that. He was planning a party with friends who he hadn’t seen since he had left for the war.
As Sonny and Beverly Washam — he a career military veteran, she a former school board member in Scott County — sat down for a Valentines Day dinner that evening, they could have never imagined the news they were about to receive: news that every military mother and father in wartime knows is possible, but news that none of them want to think about. Beverly Washam had spoken to her son by telephone just three days earlier, on his 21st birthday. His last words to her: “I love you, Mom.”
Cpl. Washam was one of two people killed on Feb. 14, 2006 when a suicide bomber detonated an improvised explosive device next to their Humvee. Also killed was Lance Cpl. Matthew R. Barnes, 20, of West Monroe, La.
Joining the military just came natural for Rusty Washam. He came from one of Scott County’s largest military families. His father, Sonny, was a master sergeant in the U.S. Army and spent 24 years in the military. His older brothers, Donny and Dustin, also served in the military — Donny in the U.S. Air Force and Dustin in the Army, like their father. (Cpl. Washam also had three sisters, Michelle Wisner, Lilly Lewis and Misty Day.)
In fact, Cpl. Washam’s middle name — Lee — came from his uncle, PFC Denny Lee Washam, who was killed in Vietnam. Like Cpl. Washam, Denny Washam was a Marine. And, like Cpl. Washam, he was 21 when he died. PFC Washam is buried in the Mill Branch Cemetery, just 1.5 miles west of where Cpl. Washam was buried at Fairview Memorial Gardens, next-door to his church.
Scott County’s heart ached following the news of Cpl. Washam’s death. A show of support built over the next seven days, culminating with Cpl. Washam’s body being returned home on February 21.
On an unusually warm late winter day, a crowd of mourners filled Fairview Missionary Baptist Church to capacity, while hundreds more gathered outside to listen to a broadcast of the memorial service.
Scores of people turned out along Baker Highway between Four Oaks Funeral Home in Huntsville and the church to pay their respects to the family, displaying American flags and other patriotic insignia. Signs were posted every mile of the journey. Deborah McKay, a ride captain for the Patriot Guard organization, said that she was “completely awestruck” by the community’s support.
“I’ve never, in my entire life, ever, seen anything like this,” she said. “And, believe me, I’ve been to plenty of military funerals since the war in Iraq began. It is a time I will never forget in my life.”
At the church, Jeffers spoke of the sacrifice made by Cpl. Washam.
“A lot of people are hurting in Scott County,” he said. “There is an outpouring of support not only in this community, but in this county, this state and this nation. All the attention, Rusty was worthy of it.”
Jim West, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church, also spoke about Cpl. Washam’s heroism.
“Rusty counted the cost and he knew the cost of the career he had chosen,” West said. “He weighed the costs and chose freedom. Somehow, our county and our state and even our nation realize we’re connected to this sacrifice. I want to say, ‘Thank you, Rusty,’ from all of us. Your sacrifice will never be forgotten.
“Because I deal with death and funerals, I usually hold up pretty well,” West continued. “But as I stood with the family the other night and watched them look at their loved one, I cried. Somehow, I think maybe I was crying for all of us, for all of Scott County.”
West closed by quoting John 15:13.
“He’ll never see his boys (Ryan and Andrew) grow up,” West said. “He’ll never know old age. He gave his life in sacrifice, and it’s up to us to recognize and pay tribute to that. What greater love than a man who would sacrifice his life for his friends?”
Fourteen years later, Scott County still recognizes and pays tribute to the sacrifice of Cpl. Rusty Lee Washam.