Share story

FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) — It all started with the black-and-white image of “Papa Searles,” looking understandably serious as he stood, hand on the back of a wooden chair, wearing the distinctive doughboy uniform of World War I.

Cliff Galyen Jr. had tried to research the experiences of his grandfather, Montgomery Searles, but was disappointed to learn his records were destroyed during a fire in St. Louis.

All Galyen knew was that Searles was in the 2nd Infantry Division and drove wagons that pulled cannons or carried supplies to the German front. Horses had been shot out from underneath him, as the story goes, but Searles had never been hurt.

Galyen had two prized possessions of his mother’s father: the photo and a copy of a letter from John J. Pershing, commander-in-chief of the American Expeditionary Forces. Pershing thanked fellow soldiers for their “splendid service to the army and to the nation” in the letter, dated Feb. 28, 1919.

Galyen thought about the best way to display the valued mementos. He and his wife, Vicki Thomas, are State Farm insurance agents with an office off Plank Road in Spotsylvania County.

Their younger daughter, Bethany, suggested creating an “honor wall” with Papa Searles, front and center. Around him and the Pershing letter could go pictures of other friends and relatives who had served in the armed forces.

“That was several years ago, and it just got bigger and bigger,” Galyen said.

Galyen’s honor wall now includes 42 photos of uniformed men from the Civil War to modern service. Each one has a connection to Galyen, a Fredericksburg native who wanted nothing more than to become an officer in the Marine Corps. But his eyesight wasn’t good enough — he wears glasses on top of contacts — and the military wouldn’t accept him during the Vietnam War era.

The agent ensures those who fought on foreign shores or protect his homeland from invasion are remembered.

“I’m honored by their sacrifices, I really am,” Galyen said. “I’m honored by what these men and women did for our country. They will not be forgotten.”

The rank and file

The framed images cover the width of one dark blue wall and spill over to a second. They loom large over the desk of Lori Buhmann, an account representative who sometimes feels like she’s intruding into military space.

No one enters the office without checking out the gallery.

“We get a lot of nice compliments,” she said.

Bethany Galyen placed the photos against dark blue mattes, put them in thick white frames and wrote their names and service branch with an artistic flair.

Ranks of those pictured range from a private to a two-star general.

Jesse Southworth was killed when his plane was shot down in World War II. His remains were never found.

Lt. Col. Ralph Prado waited on the tarmac for orders — that never came — to engage in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Galyen’s daughter dated his son.

Ten of those pictured are related to Galyen, and two are his wife’s cousins.

Galyen sings gospel music with Billy Hicks, who served in the Air Force, and used to sit in the choir beside Nelson Bohrer, a Navy man.

The late Col. Robert Wilson wrote extensively about his time in Vietnam. When he, Galyen and their wives first toured the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, the display brought back so many memories, Wilson “literally fell to his knees,” Galyen recalled.

Galyen graduated from James Monroe High School in 1970 and later taught at the school, where he coached soldier Scott Pacello in football. Another Army alum, William Shane Cantrell, worked with Galyen for about five years until he got stung by a bee while cutting grass and died.

‘Just a treasure’

There are four generations of one family on the honor wall.

William C. Wilson served with Gen. Stonewall Jackson in the Confederate Army; his son Burke W. Wilson was in the Army during World War I and wears the same style of uniform as Searles.

Next is Burke L. Wilson, who served in the Air Force during Vietnam. His two sons, Maj. Gen. Ed Wilson and Capt. Timothy Wilson, followed him into the wild blue yonder.

In a note to the Galyen family, Ed Wilson thanked them “for making the extra effort to recognize our military members. Know it will mean a lot to all those involved.”

That note is matted and framed in the same style as the photos, and hung in a place of honor.

Galyen said there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t stop and look at the honor wall. He’s got more pictures waiting to be framed, including a female veteran, and he would be thrilled to expand the gallery to nearby walls.

“It’s just a treasure,” he said, “that’s what it is.”


Information from: The Free Lance-Star,