Driving with heroes – Walton County roads dedicated to Walton’s military fallen

By Sharon Swanepoel - the Walton Tribune

Top middle: MSG Mark Allen, Sgt. Mark Allen, below left, Lt. Joseph Helton, below right, Maj. David Gray, bottom left, Cpl. Tyler Dickens. Contributed photos

Longtime Walton County residents, or at least those who have lived in the county for a while, will know the names of Sgt. Michael Stokely, 1st Lt. Joseph Helton, Maj. David Gray and Master Sgt. Mark Allen. These are Walton County sons who gave their lives in a foreign county fighting for our freedoms duringthe Global War on Terror. Some of the residents who know their names may have even been on the side of the road when, one by one, these fallen heroes returned to their home towns to be buried among their loved ones.

While newer residents may not know exactly who they are, they will undoubtedly have seen their names while driving around the county. These military heroes each have stretches of road in the county named in their honor.

Sgt. Michael Stokely and Master Sgt. Mark Allen each have that mark of honor on a 10-mile stretch of State Route 81 beginning at the intersection with U.S. Route 78 in Loganville and ending at the Newton County line. This portion runs through the community of Youth and the town of Walnut Grove. It was previously dedicated in memory of Stokely, the first Walton County resident to die in combat in the war that followed 9/11. He was killed in action in Iraq on Aug. 16, 2005, at the age of 23. The road, however, was rededicated on Oct. 12, 2021 to include the name of Allen, who was the last Walton County resident to die as a result of combat in Iraqi Freedom. Allen died on Oct. 12, 2019, as a result of wounds he sustained in Afghanistan 10 years before. Allen was 46 when he died. The road signs now read MSG Mark Allen and SGT Mike Stokely Memorial Highway.

In the rededication ceremony in October 2021, former Loganville mayor and current Georgia state Rep. Rey Martinez, a veteran himself with two sons currently serving, spoke of the sacrifice of Stokely and Allen.

“Today, we are gathered to honor two men who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the name of freedom. Two men from our community who did not back down in the face of evil to defend the freedoms that we as Americans enjoy and cherish,” Martinez said. “Master Sgt. Mark Allen and Sgt. Mike Stokely are certainly worthy of the honor that we are gathered here for today.”

Stokely and Allen were both assigned to the Griffin-based Echo Troop, 108th Cavalry Regiment, 48th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. They deployed together to Iraq in 2005 in the first of four 48th IBCT deployments during the Global War on Terrorism. Allen is buried in Corinth Memorial Gardens next to a marker bearing Stokely’s name. Stokely is now buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Maj. David Gray’s name is found on a stretch of Ga. Highway 20, also in Loganville, that begins at US Highway 78 and ends at the Rockdale County line. It is named The Maj. W. David Gray Memorial Highway. Gray died Aug. 8, 2012, from injuries suffered during a suicide bomb attack in Kunar province, Afghanistan. An airman with the United States Air Force, Gray was assigned to the 13th Air Support Operations Squadron, Fort Carson, Colo. He was serving in Operation Enduring Freedom when he was killed in action. He was 38 years old.

Stokely and Gray were Loganville High School graduates. Allen did not graduate from a local high school, but he and his family had made their home in Loganville and he spent his final years in Loganville before eventually succumbing to the devastating injury that he received in combat 10 years before.

While streets are named after people for many reasons, there is just something different about one named in honor of a fallen hero. Jeff Allen, a local resident who grew up in the local area and attended high school with Gray, said the streets named after those who gave their lives in combat really mean something.

“I grew up in Loganville on a street named after my next door neighbor. So while it’s not unusual to know the people behind the road names, David’s signs on 20 just hit different. Every time I drive by, I give a silent nod towards the sign. It’s just my little way of paying respect,” Jeff Allen said. “He’s earned it.”

He said he also on occasion used passing the street sign to remind others of the service and sacrifice of those whose names appear there.

“The other day I was driving into town on Ga 20 with a friend. He saw the nod and asked if I knew him. I told him I did and spoke a little about him,” Allen said. “He was the guy the rest of us wanted to be. Naming the road after him gives Loganville a way to honor his sacrifice and celebrate his life a little bit every day.”

In Monroe, the portion of Double Springs Church Road from Highway 11 to the front of Monroe Area High School bears the name of 1st Lt. Joseph Helton. He was a graduate of MAHS and the name on the road sign in front of the school reads Lt. Joseph Helton Memorial Parkway. A recipient of the Bronze Star Medal of Valor, a Purple Heart and numerous other decorations, Helton was killed in action in Iraq on Sept. 8, 2009.  Also a member of the United States Air Force, Helton was 24 years old when he died.

Just this month, Helton’s service and sacrifice was honored by the U.S. Air Force Academy. According to the Defense Visual Distribution Service, in a commemorative ceremony on May 10, 2024, the USAFA dedicated the south gate security facility as the 1st Lt. Joseph D.Helton Jr. Large Vehicle Inspection Site. Helton’s family, friends and fellow military members were on hand for the ceremony. In recounting his service, DVIDS noted that Helton died as a result of wounds sustained when his vehicle was hit by an explosively formed projectctile near Baghdad. When he was killed, Helton had completed his 6-month volunteer deployment but extended it for the opportunity to command his detachment.

While the naming of these roads pays tribute to the service and sacrifice of these men, it also reminds those driving on them that the service and sacrifice continues today with the families of these heroes. They lost more than a valuable community member – they lost a beloved family member. Their sacrifice is ongoing.

Another fallen warriors from the Global War on Terror with local connections who has his service commemorated in other ways is Cpl. Tyler Dickens, a former Monroe resident. Dickens died on April 12, 2005, after he was injured while on guard duty in Mahmudiyah, Iraq. His death preceded Stokely by just a few months. His name was added, along with Stokely and Helton, to the VFW War Memorial in Walton County in 2011. And Spc. Cristian Rojas-Gallego was only 24 when he was killed by an improvised explosive device Aug. 2, 2007, while on patrol in Iraq with the Stryker Brigade Combat Division of the U.S. Army out of Fort Lewis, Wash. A Loganville resident at the time, there is a brick in the Veterans Memorial in Loganville marking the service of this young immigrant soldier who gave his life for the adopted country he so loved. He was killed during his fourth tour of duty, leaving behind a wife and 5-month-old son.

In 2022, the Little River Bridge on the Social Circle Bypass was dedicated in the name of fallen Vietnam-era soldier Sgt. James Terry Savage of Social Circle. Savage, a graduate of Social Circle High School, died in an aircraft crash on Oct. 14, 1969, just 4 months into his tour.

Memorial Day every year is a day set aside to remember the sacrifice of the many men and women of the armed forces who gave their lives in service to the nation during all wars. Seeing their names on road signs, grave markers and other memorials give us an opportunity for a daily reminder to be eternally grateful to the few who have payed the ultimate price for us to live the lives that we do.

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