SIDNEY – Lee Stephens was asleep in his berth aboard the USS Stark when the missiles hit. He didn’t have a chance.
It was May 17, 1987, and Petty Officer 3rd Class Stephens, 23, had just begun his second tour of enlistment in the Navy. The Iran-Iraq War was raging, and the Stark, then in the Persian Gulf, was attacked by two Exocet missiles fired from one of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi warplanes. Stephens, from Pemberton, was among 37 sailors who were killed.
His name will be on a dog tag, hung from a cross Sept. 12-19 in Sidney’s Custenborder Park.
For the first time anywhere, United States servicemen and women who have died since the end of the Vietnam War while serving their country will be memorialized in one place.
The Shelby County Historical Society will exhibit 1,000 wooden crosses at the park, each with dog tags, each tag bearing the names of five fallen heroes. In all, 7,496 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines will be honored.
Two dog tags will have just one name, each: Stephens’s name will be on one. The other will commemorate Senior Airman Tristen Allen Carlson, of Sidney, who died Feb. 2, 2020, in Great Falls, Montana.
The exhibit will accompany a display of the AVTT-TWF Traveling Wall, a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., as one of the events marking the bicentennial of the city of Sidney. The celebration was originally scheduled for May 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Stephens’s sister, Jeana Withrow, of Maplewood, will light a memorial flame in her brother’s honor during ceremonies to open the exhibits, Sept. 12.
The idea for the field of crosses came from Mike Bennett, now of Youngsville, North Carolina, the former chairman of the Shelby County Vets to DC program, who was inspired by a permanent field of marble crosses in Sunbury. Those crosses pay tribute to Ohio’s servicemen who have died in the war on terror, since the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Sidney exhibit will recognize the fallen who died while in the service from 1975 through February 2020, from every state.
“Nothing had been done for (them),” said planning committee member Robert Shoffner, of Hardin.
“We decided it was time to honor them,” said fellow committeeman Keith McLain, of Sidney.
Withrow’s favorite memory of her brother is his red hair and freckles.
“I think he used to ride a dirt bike,” she said.
As the oldest of the seven children of Roger and Judy “Polly” Stephens, Withrow was called on often to babysit her siblings.
“(Lee) was always a good boy,” she said.
Roger Stephens, now of rural Burnside, Kentucky, also remembered his son as a “good kid.”
“He always helped me do stuff,” Roger Stephens said. “He did well in school. I didn’t want him to go into the Navy at that time with all that was going on.”
But Lee Stephens was eager to go. He left Fairlawn High School, where he was an honor student, without graduating, in order to enlist. He had served four years and been in Pemberton for a visit between tours of duty not long before the attack.
“The ship came in. We went and picked him up and brought him home,” Roger Stephens added. “I was the one who took him to the airport to go back.”
Withrow was surprised when she got a call from Shelby County Historical Society Director Tilda Phlipot, inviting her to light a memorial flame.
“I’m shocked because (no one ever) really recognized him all these years,” she said. “They never did anything for him. When I worked at Walmart, they had a board. You could put pictures of family in the military. I always put his picture up there.”
The flame will burn continuously throughout the week. The field of crosses will be open 24 hours a day until the flame is extinguished during closing ceremonies, Sept. 19. A member of the Robert Huston family will put out the flame in honor of Charles Huston, a Sidney native who was killed in Vietnam.
The cauldron housing the flame was designed and fabricated by John Bertsch, of Sidney. The five-sided piece is dedicated to the five branches of military service. Each side features a medallion from one of the branches and a word that typifies those who serve: honor, bravery, courage, sacrifice and valor. Definitions of the words also are provided.
“My uncle served in Vietnam. I’m (donating) it in his honor. The base is made of wood, but it looks like brick,” Bertsch, owner of Detailed Machining, said. “The sides are stainless steel with an aluminum top. There’s a brass dish on top for the flame. It burns propane.”
Dave Didier, owner of Performance Powder Coat in Russia, donated the powder coating.
The field of crosses will be “protected” by a ring of 171 American flags, Phlipot said. Each flag will carry the name of a Shelby County man who died in service during World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The layout for the field of crosses and flags was created by Allen Bertke, of Choice One Engineering. Bertke and his team will prepare the field by marking the exact point that a crew if volunteers will place each cross and flag,
Sharon Mohrbacher, SCHS administrative assistant, collected all the names for the crosses.
“That was a Herculean task,” she said. “Somebody directed me to a website, militarytimes.com. They started keeping track in 2001, and that was awesome. I had to find other avenues to find names before 2000. It took four or five months to accumulate the names. In looking at every single name that’s on these dog tags, it’s very humbling. It’s just in your face how many people gave their lives for our country.”
Mohrbacher has prepared a locator book that will be at the site. It will be an alphabetical list of the names on the dog tags, noting what branch of the service each person was in, what his or her rank was and on which cross the dog tag is pinned.
Assisting in the name collection were Anne Morrow and Lisa O’Connor, both of Sidney.
The pandemic affected not just the scheduling of the event. It also interrupted construction of the crosses. Originally, students at Upper Valley Career Center in Piqua were to assemble them. Work had started when COVID shut down the school.
Cecil Steele, of Sidney, said he, McLain, Shoffner, along with Mike Jones and Mark Schlagetter, of Sidney, and Richard Bailey, of Fort Loramie, took over to complete the project.
The crosses are 18 inches high and 12 inches wide, made of 1-inch lumber. But the boards, which were sold to the society at a discount by Lowe’s and paid for by donations by Shelby County Veterans Services and the Shelby County Vets to DC, had to be cut to size.
The men spent a period of three days stripping and cutting the 1-inch by 2-inch pine boards. The crosses are designed to fit over metal rods, which go into the ground. Buckeye Metal in Piqua donated the rod material, and committee members used equipment at the home of Mark Lee, of Piqua, to cut the rods into the proper lengths.
“It was three to four hours of cutting rods. There was a lot of cutting and grinding,” Shoffner said.
Steele said holes had to be drilled into the bottom of each cross and also in the top.
“A small American flag goes into the top,” Steele said. “We ended up cutting a little over 2,000 pieces. Everybody brought their tools. We knew it was going to take a long time. It was surprising how we came together to do this.”
The week-long event will include speeches by area veterans, concerts by classic rock band Outrider and the Sidney Civic Band, tours by school groups, a cruise-in and a bench dedication in Tawawa Park.