Brian Keaton Sr. served in the U.S. Army from 1993 to 2015 before being critically injured by a bomb while deployed to Iraq. His injuries forced him to spend more than three years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Around six years later Keaton started American Legion Post 62 in Moneta, Va., as a way to continue his service and show his community what veterans are capable of doing. His effort has been a success; the post already has nearly 120 members, with another 25 set to sign up later this summer.
“This is a mission from God for me. I needed a good mission,” said Keaton, a vice commander with the post. “We’re trying to show our town we’re not broken. We’re back. We went to the greatest leadership school in the world: the United States military. And we’re here to be a light in our community and a force to be reckoned with, and we want to set the example by our actions. We’re here to be boots on the ground. This is our mission.”
Those actions included the post’s recent “Military Veterans and First Responders Field of Honor,” which was erected on Flag Day. In a 100-yard tract of land near Smith Mountain Lake, members of Post 62 placed 200 3x5-foot U.S. flags on 10-foot poles. Members of the community also purchased more than 500 ribbons placed within the field in honor of their loved ones. The display stayed up until June 18.
Keaton said during a meeting last December the post talked about staging some type of event in June. The idea of a field of honor was presented and accepted, and the post was able to find a donor for the flags and land. The post also came up with $1,500 for the project.
“We did it for a chance for (community members) to come by and honor their loved ones and show some respect for the past and present,” Keaton said. “We want to set an example not only for them, but for our youth. And we wanted to do it big. We wanted to bring Americanism and patriotism and pride during Flag Day to our community. And we were hoping that our community would be proud and love it. And they did.”
Community members who purchased ribbons had the name of their loved one written on it, and it was then placed on a flagpole. “We took them out to the flag and took pictures of them and their families with them with their phones,” Keaton said. “We escorted them out there, and then we left them alone. And we let them come out and get their ribbons on (June 18). You wouldn’t believe how many people came back for their ribbons.”
Keaton said they heard some incredible stories about the people honored on the ribbons, including a U.S. prisoner of war during World War II who escaped and was hidden by the Dutch for a month and a half. When he made it back to the United States he lived on the streets in New York and Philadelphia before getting his life back together, getting married and starting a family.
“We just had story after story,” Keaton said. “Emotional contacts after emotional contacts. Hugging and caring and honoring. We had all of our first responders at the lake. We’re trying to build morale, comradeship, teamwork, and pride in what we do and who we are.”