Mother seeks sign for son who died in Iraq


By Todd G. Higdon
Posted Feb. 21, 2016 at 1:14 AM

For the last few years while traveling across Missouri, have you noticed a sign with the words “Heroes Way” and wonder what it was?
The answer is a way to honor those killed in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the two most recent and present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For one Neosho mother, Peggy Whipp, she is in process of the filling out the application for a sign to honor her son, Master Sgt. Thomas A. Crowell of the United States Air Force.
Crowell was killed in an IED (improvised explosive device) explosion in Iraq on Nov. 1, 2007. The 1989 Neosho High School graduate was a special agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, deployed to Balad Air Force Base, Iraq.
Whipp was contacted Thursday by Ross Gartman, founder and president of Heroes Way, which is based out of Cape Girardeau. On Saturday at the Praying Hands memorial (inside King Jack Park) in Webb City, the application was signed by Whipp to start the process.
Heroes Way
The organization was started in 2008 to honor Gartman’s friend, Brad Skelton.
“I spent 16 years in the military. I was in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 and 2005. I was a combat engineer, a squad leader and combat engineer battalion,” Gartman said. “One of our team leaders was Brad, who was a lifelong friend of mine. When we got back, he retired and our old unit got reactivated to go in 2007, 2008. On Feb. 6, 2008, he was killed by an IED. With that happening, I just knew who Brad was and decided that I wanted to do something to honor him and remember that sacrifice.
“It just grew into the highway memorial signs. With me doing all of the talking with the different communities and the different organizations inside our community, we had four other people right there in our immediate area.”
After talking with others, the list grew. “I said, ‘Hey, they all ought to be honored.’ That grew into legislation being passed.”
The process
“Family members fill out the application, a state representative will sign it as a sponsor, it will go to Jefferson City, and then it has to run through an approval committee,” he said.
The family submits a certificate of death, cause of death and a military form to verify being killed in combat. If the application is approved, it goes to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT). MoDOT contacts the family to find out where it wants the sign and when to have an unveiling ceremony.
Families also must pay for the signs.
“Unfortunately in the state of Missouri, the cost of those signs are $3,600,” Gartman said. “The burden of paying for those signs falls back on the family. I find that just appalling to ask a mother or a father or a wife or a brother to hear, ‘Hey, we understand your loved one paid the ultimate sacrifice. Could you give us $3,600? We will go ahead and do something for him.’”

That’s where Heroes Way steps in.

“I wasn’t going to stand by and watch families have to pay for a memorial in honor of one of their family members,” he said, “so that is how Heroes Way started.”
Gartman said the organization holds one big fundraiser a year and last year raised about $30,000.
“It takes four, five or six signs and then I have already burned up that,” he said. “Donations or any kind of help is very much appreciated. We reach out to local communities for donations or fundraising events inside or around the soldiers’ hometown areas to help pay for them. We want to make people know that there is a cost.”
Whipp’s reaction
“I am amazed,” she said. “It is something (highway sign) that I looked into quite sometime ago, but it is extremely expensive to do on your own.
“I am honored, to do whatever I can to keep his name out there. Death makes people uncomfortable as they have a tendency to not say their name or to talk to you about them. I just think that it is important to keep all of these guys’ names out there.
Crowell memorial
Whipp said that this would be the first permanent memorial sign for her son.
“Every year that his name has come up, something amazing has happened. That is wonderful as far as I am concerned. I think that it is great,” she said. “The University of Missouri in Columbia contacted me last spring and wanted to honor him. Their ROTC gave him their first Wingman’s Award. I went up for that.”
Sign location
In important aspect of the program is to have the signs placed close to the soldier’s hometown.
“The whole reason why we created the Heroes Way program was because all of the memorials tend to go either in Jefferson City or Washington, D.C., or at a courthouse somewhere,” Gartman said. “My thought process behind it was I wanted the actual family members and community individuals who knew the individual to be able to drive by everyday and see that individual and just kind of mentally take a note and say ‘thank you.’
“I know that every time I go by Brad’s or others, I always give it a ‘hoo-ha.’ What started with me trying to take care of a buddy of mine, now we have kind of pushed the envelope as an organization. We want to recognize every solder in the state.”
Whipp indicated that she’d like the sign placed on Interstate 49 between Neosho and Joplin
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