At rush hour the cars and trucks stack up along S.C. 160 between Gold Hill Road and Baxter Village. On one side of the road is Tega Cay. On the other side is Fort Mill.
The traffic passes the convenience store run by Korean immigrants and the McDonald’s and the Dunkin’ Donuts and the ice cream place and the dog store and the homes and apartments on both sides of the street filled with kids and teens and moms and dads. The road continues to the most American of all places: Walmart.
They are all places that signify with their signs, their wares, their hearts filled with hope what America is.
Last year, a mile of this road was named the Staff Sergeant T.J. Dudley Memorial Highway. It is paved with tears.
“That road matters, because who it is named for was our best,” said Charlie Funderburk. He is the Tega Cay city manager, but he started out years ago in the roads department. One year after an ice and snow storm, he worked three days straight on a grader-turned-snow plow.
“T.J. Dudley matters to us around here,” Funderburk said.
Dudley was the last York County casualty of these latest wars. He died in Afghanistan in July 2011. He was 29 years old and had three kids, a mother and siblings.
It is because of people such as Dudley that we observe Memorial Day.
When Dudley’s body was brought home for burial, the procession from Charlotte Douglas International Airport included the stretch of road that bears his name. Thousands of people lined the street, but few of them had ever met T.J. Dudley.
“It takes my heart away every time I drive on that road and see that sign with my son’s name on it,” said Robyn Dudley, T.J.’s mother. “He loved people here. He loved his country.”
Robyn Dudley was a dispatcher at the Tega Cay Police Department when her kids were growing up. She was a volunteer at the rescue squad.
She taught her kids to give to others. She has another son in the Marines and a daughter at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The oldest, T.J, joined the JROTC at Fort Mill High School and volunteered with the Tega Cay Fire Department even though he was barely old enough to drive.
“Everybody around here knew he was going on to greatness in the service,” Funderburk said.
Dudley enlisted in the Marines and left as soon as he crossed the stage at Fort Mill High’s graduation in 2000. Eleven years later, his funeral was held at Fort Mill High, and the crowd was so huge the auditorium could not hold all the mourners.
Next year, Fort Mill High will finish construction of its new ROTC building. The area will be named in honor of T.J. Dudley, said Dee Christopher, Fort Mill High School’s principal.
Dudley was in the middle of his sixth deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan when he was killed. He had given up his entire adult life since high school fighting in the wars that politicians of both parties sent young men and women to fight.
For a decade – while politicians of both parties raised millions, took vacations, played golf among the rich, and crowed about how much they love America – T.J. Dudley went to Iraq or Afghanistan six times.
A staff sergeant in the Marines in wartime is more important than any politician. A staff sergeant is in charge of 19- and 20-year-old Marines.
T.J Dudley carried an M-16 rifle and shot the enemy to stay alive and to save his buddies and fellow Marines, while people at home drove on S.C. 160 and chose McDonald’s or Bojangles’ or Dunkin’ Donuts.
And then guns and the enemy and that war took his life.
The section of S.C. 160 named for T.J. Dudley was dedicated by the city of Tega Cay last year. It is a shame – I blame myself – that The Herald did not write a story that said so.
The Herald took no picture of the signs showing that this road is named for a man who died for us.
T.J. Dudley, that road paved with blood is yours.
Today, Sunday, Robyn Dudley will be honored as a Gold Star Mother at the annual York County Veterans Council Memorial Day weekend ceremony. All the living mothers of troops killed in action will be honored.
Robyn Dudley will receive a standing ovation for giving a son, a life for the rest of us.
She and her son deserve the applause – and more.
I told Robyn Dudley I am sorry I didn’t take the time to honor her and her son when those signs went up last year.
I went there this week and stood at the signs for an hour, maybe more. The world drove by. Horns blared, people honked, a few people asked me what I was doing standing on the side of the road, just staring and remembering the funeral procession at the same spot in 2011.
Robyn Dudley, ever gracious, said not to worry about missing the dedication. She said the signs will remain. Her son’s sacrifice to Tega Cay, Fort Mill, York County, South Carolina, America, will last longer than a road, or a sign.
On Memorial Day weekend, we all know now, and remember from the crying mother and the signs, that T.J. Dudley’s heroism will last forever.
Andrew Dys • 803-329-4065 • firstname.lastname@example.org
For a list of Memorial Day weekend events Sunday and Monday visit heraldonline.com.