The Purple Heart medal is presented to men and women who are wounded in combat while serving in a military role, and Lee County wants to honor these recipients.
Lee County Purple Heart residents include Van Daughtry and Freddie Odomes.
Daughtry joined the army in 1964 and served for a little over three years. He was serving with the 173rd Airborne in the Fourth Infantry Division when he was injured. Service men and women give their time, blood and sweat to the military, but Daughtry gave something else — his leg. On Dec. 21 1967, he lay for four hours before being rescued after being hit by a landmine.
For the many years following the incident, Daughtry said he had to learn how to live with a prosthetic.
“The main thing is, support from your family,” he said. “Got a lot of support from my family and I still get a lot of support from my family. Because if we didn’t, a lot of guys like myself would probably not be here today were it not for our family.”
Odomes joined the army in 1964 and served for 26 years before retiring.
“I think I did a lot of growing, because enlisting, I was 18 years old and it gave me the opportunity to have new experiences after leaving home,” he said.
Seven years after joining the army, Odomes sustained the injury that awarded him a Purple Heart: multiple fragmentation wounds from an exploded B-4 rocket.
Odomes served 22 years and retired, but did not like life outside of the army, he said. When a friend urged him to reenlist after 18 or 19 years, he listened and became an active duty military man once again.
“My second time around gave me the opportunity to work with wounded and injured soldiers as well as those having certain diseases because I worked with the medical unit at Fort Benning, Georgia,” Odomes said. “It was just wonderful … because myself as being a wounded person, when I returned and was wounded, I had no support what-so-ever.”
Lee County joined the Purple Heart trail in 2013. Opelika resident Leslie E. Digman is the Purple Heart recipient who asked the county to join the trail.
“The purpose of the Purple Heart Trail is to create a symbolic and honorary system of roads, highways, bridges, and other monuments that give tribute to the men and women who have been awarded the Purple Heart medal,” according to purpleheart.org. “The Purple Heart Trail accomplishes this honorary goal by creating a visual reminder to those who use the road system that others have paid a high price for their freedom to travel and live in a free society.”
Joining the Purple Heart trail involves placing a sign designating the area as part of the trail, which spans 45 states. The website said that signs can vary state by state, they are not uniform.
The next step in recognizing Purple Heart recipients and veterans was to make Lee County a Purple Heart County and both cities Purple Heart cities.
The Lee County Commission moved to make the county an official “Purple Heart County” in October. Part of the declaration involved a parking space for Purple Heart vets. Daughtry attended county’s Purple Heart dedication and addressed the audience after the recognition. He urged men and women to thank veterans for their service and so honor them in that way.
Alabama has one of the highest rates of veteran suicides, and he said that by thanking a vet, it could save their life.
“There’s at least 67 [veterans that commit suicide] a day in Alabama,” Daughtry said. “You don’t hear that on the news, but it’s true.”
Odomes said that these recognitions in Lee County, Auburn, the university and Opelika will bring more awareness to Purple Heart vets.
“If you are wounded or injured in some way and receive a Purple Heart, there are many things that are going on with you that cannot be seen from the outside, they’re all internal,” Odomes said.
“The Lee County Commission hereby declares Lee County a Purple Heart County, honoring the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform wounded or killed by the enemy while serving to protect the freedoms of all Americans,” county documents declared.
The city of Auburn
To create a Purple Heart City, according to purpleheart.org, then there must be a Proclamation.
“The mission of the Military Order of the Purple Heart is to foster an environment of goodwill among the combat-wounded veteran members and their families, promote patriotism, support legislative initiatives, and most importantly — make sure we never forget,” said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders at City Council in October.
Anders presented the resolution in the presence of Daughtry and two other veterans who stood with him. Lee County Commissioner Johnny Lawrence approached the City of Auburn recently to ask if they were an officially designated Purple Heart City. Opelika has been a Purple Heart City for a few years now.
“There are a number of people in the community who are very concerned about our veterans of course, and about the number of veteran suicides and so we want to make our community, the Lee County community, as veteran friendly as possible,” Lawrence said.
There will be a Purple Heart recognition day in November at the Auburn v. Samford game, Lawrence said.
“There is a lot of attention that is going to be paid to Purple Heart recipients within it,” Odomes said. “It’s being paid but it’s even going to be more, and it’s more widely publicized. The Purple Heart is one of the awards that nobody really wants but many people get it for various reasons.”
Auburn University became a Purple Heart entity in September after a September vote by the Board of Trustees. The university has had parking spaces for Purple Heart recipients in place since 2018, however.
“People are more aware of what Purple Heart represents, probably than there ever has been,” Daughtry said. “I’ve had some young people ask me ‘Well what is a Purple Heart?’ ‘Well what does that sign mean?’ They have no idea, but they do now.”