On a mission

Military family hopes to return plates honoring Desert Shield/Desert Storm soldiers


ROBERTSDALE — Over 30 years after he served in Desert Shield/Desert Storm, Butch and Rita Turner find themselves on a new mission, to help locate veterans and their families who served during that time.

Like so many others, Master Sgt. Bobby “Butch” Turner answered the call in January of 1991, serving in Desert Shield, then later during Desert Storm.

Over nearly a 25-year period he would return several times, serving tours in Iraq and Afghanistan among others until his retirement from the National Guard in 2015.

Shortly after his first deployment, Rita Turner joined a support group organized by Sheila Swindle, wife of Maj. Bryan Swindle who was deployed with the Army National Guard.

“There were so many families affected that we decided we wanted to do something to honor them,” Sheila Swindle said.

They began working with Mayor Gordon Coley and the Robertsdale City Council, and a location was chosen at the corner of U.S. 90 and Alabama 59. On March 16, 1991, more than 40 flags were raised during a special ceremony.

All the original flags were paid for and placed by family members of a soldier who was either from the Central Baldwin area or had family living in the Central Baldwin area. Along with the flags, a small name plate was placed on each pole for each soldier to identify which flag belonged to that soldier, Rita Turner said.

“At first it wasn’t meant to be permanent,” she said. “They were originally intended to only stay up until Desert Storm was over.”

But after the flags were put up, it was decided to allow them to remain as a permanent reminder of the soldiers’ service.

In July of 1992, the original flags were lowered and replaced by the city with new flags. A special ceremony was held at Garrett Park and each original flag was presented back to the soldier or family.

The original name plates remained on the poles, but through the years, whenever there was a storm, the original PVC poles would break and were replaced by the city. The city also maintained the park and replaced the flags as needed.

“Over time, the flags became a symbol of Robertsdale and its pride for our military and country,” Rita Turner said. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been somewhere, mentioned Robertsdale and heard, “Oh yeah, that’s the place with the flags.’”

About 10 years ago, the city council decided to replace the PVC poles with aluminum poles which could withstand the elements and the Turners found themselves wondering what happened to all the name plates that were with the poles.

“I just noticed when I was going by that they were replacing the poles, so I stopped and asked,” she said. “I was told that they didn’t know but they would see if they could find out.”

Turns out Tim Wilson, who was serving as maintenance supervisor at the time, had saved the plates and put them in storage.

Rita Turner still had the list of names that she had saved from the original program and the plates were replaced with new brass plates that were attached to the base of each pole.

The brass plates are now all placed in alphabetical order, except for the plate for Butch Turner, which was put back in its original location.

“Since my children and I raised a flag for him, we knew where his was supposed to go,” she said.

The original plates were saved with the intention of returning them to the soldiers or their families.

They also helped place a plaque at the flag site, written by their son Daniel, that explains what the flags are for.

As time went by, she said, she lost track of the plates, but it was a Facebook post on the “What’s Happening in Robertsdale” page that caused her to dig them out and renew their mission to get the plates to where they rightfully belong.

“I just happened to see a post asking what the flags were for and realized that people have forgotten,” she said. “As the wife of a soldier, I knew I just couldn’t let that happen.”

She also knew that it was time to return the plates to where they belonged, with the soldiers and the families.

So far, they have found and returned about 20 of the 44 original plates. Unfortunately, four of the plates, Christopher Smith, Phillip Underwood, Jerrell Hollaway and E. Crandell Horton, have been lost over time, but about 20 of the plates remain, she said.

Remaining plates include: Spc. Christopher A. Boggs, U.S. Army; Sgt. Robert Calloway, U.S. Army; Sgt. Roy Ivan Childress, U.S. Army; Spc. T. Wade Clark, U.S. Army; Staff Sgt. Drew R. Cooper, U.S. Air Force; Spc. Christopher Cumbest, U.S. Army; Cpl. Kurt Devon, U.S. Army; James E. Eddins, U.S. Marine Corps; Pfc. Michael F. Evans, U.S. Army; Lance Cpl. Marlon Jenkins, U.S. Marine Corps; Lt. Allen Logan, U.S. Marine Corps; Command Sgt. Maj. James E. Lowery, U.S. Army; Sgt. Donald Patterson, U.S. Army; Gary Paul, U.S. Navy; Spc. Raymond C. Styron, U.S. Army; Staff Sgt. Kenneth Sumner, Army National Guard; Spc. Frank Trough, U.S. Army; Capt. Frederick Utter, U.S. Army; Maj. Jimmy Waites, U.S. Marine Corps and Lance Cpl. Joe Wilson, U.S. Marine Corps.

“Everyone we’ve encountered so far has been so appreciative and we’ve heard so many stories,” Rita Turner said. “We’ve also heard so many stories from people who said they didn’t know what the flags were for but now that they did, they have a renewed respect for our city and what our city has done for our veterans.”

The Turners are hoping that one day soon they can return all the plates and encourage anyone with any information to email Rita Turner at rnbturner@gmail.com.