DEEP GAP — American flags billowed in the wind and a break appeared in the afternoon rain as tears were shed on the U.S. 221/U.S. 421 overpass during a ceremony dedicating the bridge to a fallen soldier Thursday, June 20.

“We are here today to honor an American hero,” said Cullie Tarleton, Board of Transportation member for NCDOT Division 11. “We name this bridge on the U.S. 221/U.S. 421 overpass in the community of Deep Gap in Watauga County in honor of Sgt. Dillon C. Baldridge.”

Family members, fellow platoon soldiers, friends, veterans groups and local elected officials turned out to see the Sgt. Dillon C. Baldridge Bridge dedication.

Baldridge, of Youngsville, died at age 22 while serving with the U.S. Army during Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, alongside Sgt. Eric M. Houck of Baltimore and Sgt. William M. Bays of Allensville, Ky., June 10, 2017, according to Cpt. Patrick J. Sweeney, who served with the men.

“No testimony, written or spoken, can ever fully capture Dillon’s nature — it was and remains something you had to experience firsthand,” Sweeney said. “If you understand the concepts of service and sacrifice; if you accept the values of freedom, duty and honor; if you’ve ever experienced the purest kind of love shared among close families and between the truest of friends, then you are well on your way to understanding what Dillon meant to all those who know him.”

Melissa Strickland, Baldridge’s aunt, led the group in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem, while his mother, Tina Palmer, of West Jefferson, and other family members watched.

“For us as a family, it’s incredible, because so many people did so many wonderful things, but this bridge is something that is permanent, that we can see all the time, and it puts a smile on our faces just to see that his name is continually out there for people to see,” Palmer said. “So many people worked so hard — we have so much gratitude for everyone who has been a part of this. It means the world to us that they cared enough to do this, for us and for him.”

The bridge dedication came about as the result of an initiative started two years ago by the Blue Star Mothers of the High Country, aided by local elected officials including state Sen. Deanna Ballard (R-Blowing Rock), who led the N.C. Senate in passing a bill that named the overpass in Baldridge’s honor.

“This is just a small gesture, compared to the sacrifice that Sgt. Baldridge made,” Ballard said after the ceremony. “It feels so small in light of everything, but if it gives his family some peace of mind and comfort, I’m honored to be a part of that.”

Other speakers at the dedication event included Pastor Pat Fleming and Blue Star Mothers of the High Country President Sara Rice.

Among the veterans groups present at the event were the N.C. Patriot Guard Riders, Boone VFW, Sparta VFW, Ashe and Boone American Legion, Ashe Marine Corps League and Disabled American Veterans of Boone.

According to the Department of Defense, Baldridge, Houck and Bays were assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 3rd Battalion, 320th Field Artillery Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) and Company D, 1st Battalion, 187th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), based out of Fort Campbell, Ky.

Baldridge was laid to rest with military honors at Ashelawn Memorial Chapel in Crumpler June 23, 2017. He was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman Badge and the Army Commendation Medal with one oak leaf cluster, Ashe Post & Times previously reported.

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