TALLMANSVILLE – Travel about three miles out on the Ivy Road to Little Sand Run Road, and you’ll find the creek Luke Wamsley used to play in when he was five – maybe six – years old.
The stream abuts the property of his aunt, Debbie Kelley, who loved her nephew dearly and relished watching him splash around in that creek.
Luke Wamsley is gone now, having died at age 28, on Sept. 23, 2015, several days before his 29th birthday, which would have been Sept. 28, 2015. At the time, he was serving as a senior airman in the Vermont National Air Guard.
Now, a bridge named in Wamsley’s honor stretches across Little Sand Run Road, hovering over that creek along County Route 16 where carefree memories were made, and Kelley is able to see it from her house.
“She just loved him,” Luke Wamsley’s father, Dion Wamsley, said of his sister. “She simply adored my son.”
The recently dedicated U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Luke Christopher Wamsley Bridge gives Dion something tangible, something visible – something literally concrete – by which to commemorate the life of his son, who died by suicide while working as a senior airman for the Green Mountain Boys.
“It doesn’t fix [the grief], but it puts a little coat on it,” Dion said.
In late September 2020, almost exactly five years after the day Luke passed, Dion, his family members, local religious leaders and Del. Robbie Martin, who sponsored the House of Delegates Resolution that named the bridge in Luke Wamsley’s honor, attended the official bridge dedication ceremony.
Ask Dion Wamsley what his son was like, and he’ll tell you about a young man who enjoyed making other people smile but did little smiling himself.
“He actually reminded me of Robin Williams,” said Dion, a local volunteer firefighter and bus driver for Upshur County Schools, said in an interview last week. “They actually had the same demeanor: They made everybody laugh, but when they went home, they weren’t laughing.”
Luke Christopher Wamsley was born in Upshur County on Sept. 28, 1986, a son of Dion and Janice Wamsley Rollins, his mother, who now lives in Burlington, Vermont. He attended kindergarten and first grade at Union Elementary School before moving north to Vermont.
Luke graduated in 2009 from Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas; was a substitute teacher for some time; and served in combat during a tour in Afghanistan in 2013, bringing home 12 federal medals and four state medals. Among Luke’s more than a dozen medals were the Air Force Achievement Medal and the Meritorious Unit Award.
“He had a funny, joking, comedian-type of personality,” Dion said. “What he cared about was making the other person smile.”
But Dion said his son, who is buried in the Randolph Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, Vermont, carried a darkness inside that tormented him, even prior to serving in combat.
“I knew my son, and something really had to be bad with him,” Dion said. “It’s a scar inside that you can’t see from the outside. He had low self-esteem, and he saw some stuff in Afghanistan that he shouldn’t have seen – the combination of all with PTSD and addiction really took its toll on him.”
Dion said when Luke passed away, his biggest fear was that his son’s life would be forgotten, so he contacted former Senator Greg Boso, who he knew as a fellow firefighter in Summersville.
“I was trying to find out some ways my son could be remembered when he passed, and I contacted Greg, and got all the paper for the bridge dedication, and we had made sure all the coordinates of the bridge were kosher, but Greg left the Senate before it could be finished,” Dion said, “so then I had to find someone else to sponsor it.”
After Boso retired, citing career obligations, Del. Carl ‘Robbie’ Martin, R-45, stepped in.
Dion said he approached Martin one day when he was eating at the former 88 Restaurant & Lounge, which Martin managed.
“I asked Robbie about it, and he said he’d never done it before, but he would try,” Dion said. “It was the last hour of the last day [of the legislative session], and he got it through and got it done. I thanked him, and I thanked him, and I thanked him.”
Having a concrete piece of infrastructure dedicated in Luke’s name helped quell Dion’s fears that his son would be forgotten. Luke was the second child he had lost, having suffered the loss of his daughter, Anna Wamsley, in a tragic wreck that took the lives of four local teenage girls in March of 2008.
“Everybody knew about Anna’s death, and everyone rallied around us, and supported us,” Dion said. “It was different with Luke. It was quieter, and he had only been here at the beginning of his life, so I really wanted something here, so he’ll be remembered.”
“It was a sort of peace and comfort to me because my biggest fear was that he would be forgotten,” Dion added. “This bridge, this memorial, helps because even when I’m gone, it will still be there and keeping his memory alive. I don’t care if it’s [a bridge] on a two-lane or four-lane – they can be closed for repair, but they can’t be torn down. They can’t be touched, and it made me feel good that his name will be memorialized after I’m gone.”
His sister, Debbie Kelley, has lived on the property for 43 years, and now she can see the bridge from her window.
“This bridge is where he stayed at his aunt’s,” Dion said. “It’s where he played.”
For local resources regarding PTSD treatment, please visit the VA’s website or call the Veterans Crisis line at 800-273-8255 and press 1. Other resources designed to help with emotional/mental health are available at www.help4WV.com.