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Honoring Kentucky’s only WWI Medal of Honor recipient

How does a nation truly show appreciation for the veterans who fought to protect it? No amount of accolades, parades or holidays could ever be enough in return for the sacrifices made by these soldiers and their families. And though these events are certainly a start, “sometimes a hug or a handshake means more than a war memorial, a museum exhibit, a written tribute or a statue,” says James Gifford, CEO and senior editor of Ashland’s Jesse Stuart Foundation, who has written a book about one of those soldiers.

Willie Sandlin lived a simple life upon returning home from war. Perhaps the stories were too painful to recount or he felt he was just doing his job. Perhaps simple is all that was affordable. Whatever the case, his contributions, and those of others, cannot be forgotten.

In his biography, Sergeant Sandlin: Kentucky’s Forgotten Hero, (Jesse Stuart Foundation, $35), Dr. Gifford brings to light the Hyden soldier’s feats of courage. In 1918 during the First World War, Sandlin single-handedly “attacked and disabled three German machine gun nests and killed all 24 occupants.” In addition, 200 more German soldiers were captured. His actions earned him the Medal of Honor, the highest a soldier can receive for bravery. Sandlin was one of only 90 WWI soldiers to receive it. 

Upon returning to his Leslie County home, Sandlin’s life was never one of fame and fortune like some of his military counterparts. His military pension was pitifully small, certainly not enough to support his wife and seven children. He continually advocated for all veterans to receive the benefits promised to them while living in financial despair and ill health himself. In 1949, at age 59, he succumbed to a lung infection caused by German gas poisoning.  

After Sandlin’s death, recognition came repeatedly, but Gifford feels it was too little, too late. “With this book, I salute Willie Sandlin and all other veterans for their service and their sacrifices. I encourage everyone who reads this book to express thanks to a veteran.”

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