Honoring Hometown Heroes: Keeping memories alive of local fallen soldiers

News 10 wanted to help share stories of local heroes who lost their lives protecting our country.

Posted: Feb 5, 2018 11:42 PM

VIGO COUNTY, Ind. (WTHI) - Last Saturday, the Knox County community laid Army 1st Lt. Clayton Cullen to rest in his hometown of Bicknell.

The soldier's death has impacted more than just his hometown community. 

You may be familiar with the names Gene and Dona Griffin. Over the years, News 10 has done several stories with the Griffins after they lost their son Sgt. Dale Griffin in Afghanistan.

The Griffin Bike Park in Vigo County, which saw about 40,000 people in 2017, was created by his family in his honor.

"It's been a bittersweet that we've had a loss that's turned into a community legacy," said Gene Griffin.

Being added to that legacy is 1st Lt. Cullen. On Monday, the Griffins picked up a picture of him to be placed along the trail in their park.

The Griffins say Cullen is the 208th picture to be placed in the park, honoring Indiana's fallen men and women in the military.

"Just Google his name, and find out a little bit about him, and about his family, and about his community, you'll find that he was an extraordinary young man," said Dona, "You can't ride by or walk by those pictures and look into the eyes of those young people and not be touched, recognizing that they paid a price."

Cullen's picture, along with the others, will be placed back in the park in about 45 days, the Griffins told us.

As a family that's dealt with loss, the Griffins say continuing to keep memories alive has been one way to help them heal.

"When we fail to express their names with our lips, that's when they're lost for the last time," said Gene.

"There are still those fighting and that means there are still those that we're losing," Dona added, "and we want to remember all of them."

We also wanted to help share stories of other families impacted by losing a loved on in the military. 

Through previous coverage and other methods, we compiled our own list of local heroes who gave their lives to protect our country.

One of those names includes Staff Sgt. Roy Lewsader Jr. of Clinton, Indiana.

On Monday, News 10 spoke with his widow, Melissa, who says the journey since losing her husband has been difficult.

It was love at first sight for the two, Melissa said they married when she was just 17 years old.

"All of our friends had bets on how long it would last, the longest was five years," she said, "We well exceeded that."

Like any married pair, the Lewsaders had their own routine. 

"When he would pack to go somewhere, I would have the check list and call it off and check it as he was packing it," she said, "We always helped."

Melissa knew her husband like the back of her hand, it's because of that she knew something was off when he was leaving for deployment to Afghanistan. Lewsader was assigned to Fort Riley in Kansas. 

"I took him over to meet up with his unit," she said, "and no sooner than I get home, Hon, I left my coffee, can you bring it to me? Ok, I mean this was like out of the ordinary. I went back four times for things he had forgetten." 

"I had been married for 13 years at that point," she added, "I had been through many deployments, never had a feeling. This time, I said there's something different, something is not right, I don't feel ok."

That nagging feeling would be confirmed in June 2007, after she received a call from her husband telling her to check her e-mail.

"It was pretty much a goodbye letter," Melissa said, "I think he knew."

June 16th is when Lewsader died in Afghanistan. The news, Melissa said, reminded her of a scene from her favorite movie, "We Are Soldiers".

"The lady that broke down and screamed 'No, you've got it wrong', that is exactly what it feels like," she said, "I cannot picture a more accurate description. I'm sorry, I don't know the actress, but that scene says it all."

It was an ending that Melissa and their children were not prepared for, but memories are what keeps the family going. Melissa says they frequently visit Lewsader's resting place, sometimes having picnics at his grave and often stopping by for special occasions and holidays. 

For Melissa, it's knowing her husband died doing what he knew best that brings her peace.

"I know in my heart that if he had to go, he would not want to have went any other way," she said, "and I know that sounds silly, but that kind of brings me comfort. I know he died doing what he loved."

As for their children, Melissa says they continue to honor their father's memory. One of their daughters chose to get married on May 10th, which is Lewsader's birthday. Their son, following his father's footsteps, joined the JROTC at school. 

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