Veteran honors country, inspires neighbors
Three times a year retired Marine Joe “Gunner” Vasquez decorates his property on Kirkland’s Creek Road in Bryson City with American flags, but the decorating is not done to please himself.
For Vasquez, who served nearly three decades in the Marines and moved from Gainesville, Florida to Bryson City three years ago, it is a labor of love.
“I always do this up here basically for everybody around here because there’s a lot of patriots up here, but I just want them to come out of the woodwork,” Vasquez said.
On Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veterans Day — the birthday of the US Marine Corps— the 65-year-old veteran gets out hundreds of American flags of all sizes and sets to work on his property lining both sides of Kirkland’s Creek Road and covering a large span of a hillside bordered by a waterfall and creek.
The scene is not merely patriotic. The effect of the flags lining the roadway is heartening, but rounding the curve into Vasquez’s property and seeing hundreds more flags covering sun-splashed hillside surrounded by the rushing creek is enchanting.
The job takes Vazquez, his wife Amy and their Corgi Butters a few days to complete from start to finish.
First, Vasquez mows the area and cuts down any grass or bushes that might obscure the view of passersby. Then, he sets to work planting his flags.
“It takes about two hours for all 96 flags. I could do it in one day, but I usually install it over several days,” he said.
Amy and a friend from the neighborhood help cover the hillside while Butters supervises the operation.
The job is a tough one with Vasquez working uphill the entire time, but he enjoys hard work. And he takes plenty of effort to make sure that the display looks just right.
“You have to get on your knees and drive a spike in the ground for each one to make sure they’re straight for the ones along the road. I don’t want them falling over,” he said.
The flags are more than just decoration to Vasquez. To him, they honor the country, servicemen ─ both living and dead, the freedoms and principles that the founding fathers set forth in the United States Constitution, and community ─ a community from which he has gotten plenty of positive feedback.
Neighbors and drivers passing through slow down to take a look at Vazquez’s presentation. Some stop to tell him how good it looks and thank him for doing the work or introduce themselves to Vazquez and Butters.
The effort truly does bring the community together, according to Bryson City native Tammy McLean. She now lives in Florida but stops by to see “Gunner” every time she comes home for a visit.
“We love it,” McLean said of the display. “It’s our most favorite thing about coming home. It means a lot that Gunner takes the time to show pride in America. It’s also about community. This is a community, but since he started doing this, I feel like it’s brought the community closer together.”
For his part, Vasquez hopes his efforts will remind those who see the spectacle of the freedoms Americans enjoy and the work that has gone into this country over the last 243 years.
“These few days a year, they can look and see these flags and remember we got our freedoms from people that worked hard and loved our country,” Vasquez said who plans to keep the project going as long as he can. “I’ll keep doing it as long as I’m walking.”