WELLSBURG - In introducing Annabelle Coulter Hayward of Beech Bottom John Chernenko asked those attending the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation's annual dinner Saturday to imagine her wading in waist-deep water to the shore of Omaha Beach, wearing a steel helmet and canteen, as she and others in the Army Nurses Corps prepared to treat the many soldiers wounded at Normandy, France 12 days earlier.
Hayward, who was named the foundation's Veteran of the Year, and other nurses treated at least hundreds and possibly thousands of troops amidst enemy artillery fire and attacks by low-flying German aircraft in the tent that served as a mobile hospital, said Chernenko
A Wellsburg native, former state Senator and U.S. marshal, Chernenko was struck in the head and face by shrapnel while serving in the Battle of the Bulge.
He said many years he learned from an official at a Veterans Administration hospital that Hayward was among the nurses who treated him.
"I want to thank you, Annabelle. You saved my life," Chernenko told Hayward as he presented her the foundation's Veteran of the Year award.
Also on hand was Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, guest speaker for the event, who said Hayward "was really a trailblazer in her time."
The nurses held the rank of second lieutenant but didn't have the same authority as male officers. Hayward was discharged as a captain.
She has a photo of herself wearing one of the early uniforms issued to the newly formed Army Nurses Corps. Intended for a male soldier, it appears to be at least two sizes too large for her petite frame.
Hayward told the many attending she didn't believe she deserved the honor.
"We served the boys, but they served us first," she said.
Chernenko also noted Hayward went on to a 40-year career in nursing, including 20 years at the Brooke County Health Department, and was the first and only, to date, female member of the Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad.
The group presents military honors at the funerals of area veterans. Hayward served in the group until recent years, when her mobility became an issue.
She was among many veterans who were recognized at the dinner.
Foundation member Joan Nicholson presented a plaque to Michael J. Smith Sr., her brother and the father of Marine Lance Cpl. Michael J. Smith Jr.
The 21-year-old Marine was killed in a skirmish while attempting to aid a wounded soldier in Iraq in 2004.
His death inspired Nicholson, Howard Armstrong and others in the foundation to establish a memorial park honoring all of Brooke County's veterans, living and dead.
Veterans from World War II to the present also were invited to stand and be recognized and received loud and steady applause.
Armstrong, the group's president, thanked thanked everyone for their support of the park, which will be established near the paddleboat pond at Brooke Hills Park.
He noted the design for the park has changed three times but he said the most recent concept has "a very realistic and achieveable budget" while still serving as a solemn tribute to all who served and those who died while serving their country.
He thanked retired Brooke High School art teacher Sam White for black and white and color renderings of the design displayed at the dinner.
With an estimated budget of $200,000, the park would include a granite wall with polished front divided into five sections, each bearing the insignia of a military branch and bearing the names of local service members who lost their lives while serving their country.
The group is exploring various ways to display the names of other Brooke County veterans who returned from their military service but made other sacrifices.
Based partly on an idea envisioned by Paul "Bud" Billiard, the plans also call for a 6 foot to 7 foot statue of a soldier in a saluting position near two stone plots, one representing Flanders Field, the French battlefields of World War I where many fallen American soldiers were buried; and the other, Arlington National Cemetery, the famous military cemetery maintained by the Army in Virginia.
Monuments near the park's entrance will pay tribute to local service members who were prisoners of war or missing in action and to Smith.
The foundation is soliciting various organizations for contributions and seeking sponsors for granite pavers, which will be engraved with the name of a loved one, for $150 each.
A May 21 car show at the Dollar General Market is among several fundraisers planned.
Tomblin said, "It makes you proud to be a West Virginian, to see so many people turn out for a great event like this."
He said the level of support shown by many at the dinner ensures him the park will become a reality.