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Remembering one of their own

SALEM – Mackenzie Blackwell was only 2 when her daddy died in Bagdad on his third deployment when his base was attacked. She remembers him, though, and on Veterans Day this year, so did her fellow students at South Salem Elementary.

They honored Army Specialist Justin Richard Blackwell and posted a picture of him outside the office, marked with a red-white-and blue ribbon on Nov. 12. That’s when Mackenzie, who is a second grader, explained the significance of Veterans Day and her father’s sacrifice as part of the school’s morning announcements.

Mackenzie Blackwell, left, and South Salem Elementary's Flag Patrol raise the flag that came from the Army base in Bagdad where her daddy, Specialist Justin Richard Blackwell, was stationed and died after the base was attacked in 2007. Photo by Meg Hibbert

Then she and the school’s Flag Patrol raised the American flag that came from the Army base where her dad was stationed.

“He made the choice to protect our freedoms,” she said as part of her announcement. “He was stationed in Bagdad as he was fighting against terrorism and protecting our freedoms…Please keep him and all of the men and women who have served in the United States military in mind as you stand for the school-wide Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence…I am thankful for his brave and courageous work as a soldier.”

I wasn’t nervous at all,” said Mackenzie afterwards.

Mackenzie’s class and teacher Summer Custer stood near her outside at the flag pole. The other second graders came out of the school to sing the National Anthem and watch the flag raising.

Fallen hero Specialist Justin Richard Blackwell's picture is posted outside the office of South Salem Elementary.

Her mother, Tiffany Cregger-Blackwell, stood back as her daughter read the announcement, tears streaming down her cheeks. Tiffany was 24 when her husband died. He was 27 and had been deployed on that tour for only a few weeks, she said.

“He died trying to shield Pvt. Jeremy Bohannon, who was 19,” Cregger-Blackwell said. “It was Aug. 5, 2007, three days before Mackenzie’s second birthday,” added Cregger-Blackwell who went through South Salem Elementary School as a student. Her mother, then Ronda Hall, was a student in the first classes at South Salem.

“Mackenzie is a good kid. Veterans Day weekend was a rough one for me. Not so hard on Mackenzie, though. I’m concerned it will get harder for her when she’s older,” said Cregger-Blackwell, hugging her fiancé, David Harmon, and Mackenzie’s baby sister, 15-month-old Morgan.

Cregger-Blackwell and Mackenzie were staying in Salem with her mother when she got the news about her husband. His funeral was held in Paris, Tenn., where he was from, she said.

“Richard went into the Army after high school. Mackenzie comes from a tradition of men serving in the military. My mom’s dad, Bobby Hall, served in the Army. Mackenzie’s dad and three uncles and their father served. One, Nathan Blackwell, is stationed at Fort Lee now.”

Cregger-Blackwell remembered the day she got the news about her husband.

“Two men in dress uniforms pulled up in a government car. You know immediately,” she said.


About the author

Meg Hibbert

Meg Hibbert held the position of editor of the Salem Times-Register and The New Castle Record from July 1999 - July 2014. She won more than two dozen awards from the Virginia Press Association for feature writing, columns, business articles, health and environmental writing and education coverage. She and her husband, Bill, live in Salem and are avid University of Georgia Bulldogs.

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