By Emily Williams
The names of more than 11,000 Alabama veterans who have lost their lives in service to the United States of America since 1900 are immortalized at the Alabama Veterans Memorial Park.
The park is always adding to its memorials. One of them, the StepStone memorial, allows people to honor any veteran, living or dead, with a paver in the park’s courtyard. Park representatives are taking applications and preparing for the next StepStone Ceremony, to be held during the park’s Memorial Day Remembrance on May 19.
The park was dedicated May 27, 2001, and founded by Della Fancher as a means to memorialize the Alabama men and women who died in battle or due to wounds sustained during service. Today, the $6 million park situated off Interstate 459 near Liberty Park recognizes many more than it originally did.
“Having your name listed in the Hall of Honor is a sacred thing,” Fancher said. “The only way you get your name there is if you died during active duty.”
It is even more difficult to be immortalized in the Regiment of Columns, which features plaques honoring the lives of each of Alabama’s Medal of Honor recipients who have died.
“We felt that other veterans should be recognized as well,” Fancher said.
Thus, the foundation created its StepStone campaign, which allows people to purchase brick pavers and have them engraved with the name, rank and branch of military service of any veteran they wish to honor.
The pavers are installed twice a year in a growing courtyard that encircles the park’s 132-foot-tall flag pole, which Fancher said is the same size as the flagpole at the White House.
“It’s really a moving ceremony,” Fancher said. “We give the person who purchased the stone in honor of a veteran – whether living, deceased or currently serving – the opportunity to talk about that honoree.”
One of the bricks in the courtyard honors the late Willard R. Yarbrough of Vestavia Hills, better known as “Pokie,” according to Fancher.
Fancher has held on to a clipping of an article published in a 2004 edition of The Birmingham News in which he recounted his experience in World War II.
Though born on March 11, 1923, in San Antonio, Yarbrough lived in Birmingham for most of his life.
He served in the Army from Jan. 8, 1943, to Jan. 2, 1946, with the 134th Infantry of the 35th Division, spending much of that time driving the pickup truck that pulled his unit’s anti-tank gun.
Yarbrough, 81 at the time the article was written, recalled that his most vivid memory was leaving southern France to go to the Battle of the Bulge.
“They put us right on the front lines, and they threw hand grenades at us,” he recalled. “That’s how close we got.”
Months later, on April 12, 1945, Yarbrough was wounded in combat during the Ruhr Pocket – a battle of encirclement in Germany’s Ruhr Valley – which earned him a Purple Heart.
While he was firing at the enemy, Yarbrough’s position was found, and an artillery shell was sent his way. It detonated a few yards away, sending shrapnel into his skull and damaging his foot.
After the war, Yarbrough moved back to Birmingham and married Annie Kathryn, his wife of 56 years.
Having lived through World War II and surviving his injuries, Yarbrough’s service to the United States would not be represented in the park’s Hall of Heroes.
Through the StepStone campaign, he was able to see a brick installed in his honor in the park’s 2011 Veterans Day ceremony, well before his death in May 30, 2016.
The next installation will be held during a Memorial Day ceremony May 19. Stepstones can be ordered no later than April 6 for $100 by filling out a form available at alabamaveterans.org.