48 years later, bridge named for Jerry Lancaster
The name of Jerry Lancaster is among the 58,195 on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, and now it will be on a bridge in Wilson County.
It's a bridge that Lancaster and his buddy Jim Owens used to cross when they'd walk along the shoulders of Highway 70, picking up soft drink bottles to turn in for the deposit, for spending money.
"We'd paint our names on those bridges, or our girlfriends' names," Owens reminisces.
But now Lancaster's name will be permanently inscribed on an official state highway marker on one of those bridges, designating it as the Jerry Lancaster Memorial Bridge, thanks to the Wilson County Commission and the Viet Cong.
Commission honors him
The county commission unanimously passed a resolution Monday night honoring Lancaster for his service and his sacrifice to his country - and fighting the VC exacted that sacrifice 48 years and two months ago in Binh Long province on Oct. 17, 1967.
There was no love lost between Lancaster and the Communist rebels we were fighting in Vietnam, even though Owens recalls, "He was the sweetest, nicest man," and District 6 Commissioner Kenny Reich echoes, "He was just a good guy."
"I've still got his letters," Owens says. "They were mostly negative - 'They live in tunnels like rats!' He didn't like it there, but he did his duty."
In the courthouse hallway outside the commission meeting room Monday night, Owens promised those letters to Ward 4 Councilor and Vietnam veteran Bernie Ash of Lebanon, the county's veterans services officer, to place in the proposed Wilson County Veterans Museum.
'LHS Class of '65'
"I went to school with him," Ash recalls. "He was in my class (Lebanon High School, 1965). There were a lot of us in that class who went."
"And a lot who didn't come back," Owens adds. "He was the first on my block to come back in a box."
At last year's Veterans Day parade and ceremony, Ash listed at least four Class of '65 graduates who went to 'Nam and "didn't come back," as Owens put it - Lancaster, Terry Dillard, Ronnie Presley and Billy Stevenson, one of the first African Americans to integrate LHS.
Owens attended Castle Heights Military Academy, himself, and as high schoolers he and Lancaster would plan military strategy against the Viet Cong.
"We'd figure out how to return unfriendly fire, triangulate," Owens remembers. "I'd say, Jerry, you're going to get killed over there."
Drafted - and went
Lancaster didn't volunteer, but when he was drafted, he went, interrupting his higher education at Cumberland University (then known as Cumberland College). He was Wilson County to the core, never attending a school outside it, starting first grade at Munsey Maple Hill School on Highway 70 near the bridge that will soon bear his name.
After graduating from eighth grade at the old-style, two-room school, Lancaster moved on to LHS, where Reich was in the class behind him (1966). But they held after-school and weekend grocery-store jobs together, the county commissioner recalls.
"We worked together part-time at H. G. Hill while we were both in school," Reich says. "A bunch of us guys ran around together on Palmer Road - he lived on Palmer Road."
Another connection Lancaster had to the current county commission was that on Sept. 1, 1947, he was born in Lebanon's McFarland Hospital, which was inherited and operated by District 5 Commissioner and retired Vietnam War colonel Jerry McFarland's father Dr. Sam Bradshaw McFarland.
At one time, Lancaster's father Thomas Lancaster also served on the commission himself.
Fellow vet: Ashe
Also attending LHS with Jerry Lancaster was District 12 Commissioner Terry Ashe, the retired Wilson County sheriff who was drafted in 1966, served in Vietnam from 1967-68 and earned three Purple Hearts and one Bronze Star in the 101st Airborne Division.
In 'Nam, Spec. 4 Lancaster served in the First Infantry Division, 2nd Battalion 28th Infantry Company H, and was awarded the Combat Infantry Badge, the Campaign Medal and the Purple Heart.
But Lancaster "unfortunately lost his life at the age of 20," according to the resolution honoring him, during the year of the war's heaviest fighting and largest US presence, 1967. Upon his return, he "was honored with a military service and laid to rest in Wilson County Memorial Gardens," the resolution says.
The Highway 70 bridge that will now bear his name crosses Spencer Creek at 4090 Lebanon Road. His sacrifice to his country had been overlooked in the sense of having a bridge named for him, District 23 Commissioner Sue Vanatta told the commission - until now.
Owens brought the matter to her attention, Vanatta said, and so she and Reich introduced the honorary resolution - which also says that the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) "has confirmed this plaque will be placed on the bridge" if the county commission approved the honor and sent it to TDOT.
Commissioners Vanatta and Reich stood with Owens and Bernie Ash at the front of the meeting to introduce and explain the resolution, and Vanatta shook Owens' hand once it passed.
"It's out on Highway 70 by my home," Owens says about the bridge. "I'll be able to see his name every time I feed my cows."
Lancaster's parents were Thomas and Mae Ligon Lancaster and he was survived by two brothers, Staff Sgt. Thomas B. Lancaster, Jr., of the US Air Force and Arnold Lancaster.
"He was like a brother to me," Jim Owens says.
Writer Connie Esh may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.