The tailgate on Tom Riddle’s 19-year-old truck catches the attention of passers-by as he cruises the streets of Western North Carolina. The tailgate, custom-painted by Andrea Martin in February, features a replication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., altered to show the names of those veterans from the WNC region, as well as throughout the state, who died in the war.
“She put the names of five of the men that I served with on there,” says Riddle. “She did a lot of homework and found all the names from Western North Carolina.” The list of names also includes six soldiers with whom he attended grade school in Henderson County, he adds.
Martin, a Hendersonville native, is currently working on her third custom-painted tailgate project to honor veterans. A floor-plan designer for Deltec Homes, Martin says her mother is an artist, but Martin never tried her own hand at painting until 2014, when a family friend, Charlie Hardin, asked her to paint the tailgate of his truck.
“I’m possibly the most patriotic person you’ve ever met,” Hardin says. “I love this country and I love the people that serve it, so I guess that’s how I came up with the idea.”
Hardin, an Army veteran, says he wanted his tailgate to depict the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the rolling hills at Arlington National Cemetery. He hopes to commission Martin to paint scenes from World War I, World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars later this summer.
“A lot of people might see [my tailgate] and think, ‘Well, that’s really nice,’ but they may not know what it stands for,” says Hardin. “It stands for the people who gave their lives for this country. There’s people buried in that cemetery from every conflict that this country has had.”
For Martin, painting the tailgates is an opportunity to extend her gratitude to all veterans, she says.
“He [Hardin] told me stories about how, whenever they got home from Vietnam, they told him, ‘Don’t wear your uniform. Don’t be known because you’re going to get spit on, you’re going to get attacked,’” she says, and then adds, “I don’t want them to think they’re unnoticed.”
Her grandfather had a career in the Army, which included tours in World War II and the Korean War, earning him a Bronze Star and Purple Heart, she notes. As a result, her father instilled a love of country in her, and she says she hopes to pass that on to her 9-year-old son, Brayden Martin. For spring break this year, she says, they went to Washington, along with Hardin, to tour the war memorials.
“I want him to have a great appreciation. We have an amazing life, me and him, and it’s not free,” says Martin. “I told him when I was painting these tailgates, I said, ‘Brayden, this man still deals with pain from our freedom that he fought for 40 years ago. You can never take that for granted — never, ever, ever.’”
Martin and her son volunteer with Sheep Dog Impact Assistance of WNC, a branch of the national nonprofit that focuses on supporting military members and emergency personnel. Through these experiences, she says she’s gained more awareness about the struggles facing veterans.
“One thing I’ve learned this past year and a half, getting to know the veterans, is it never goes away. Even if they’re alive 40 years after the Vietnam war, there’s a veteran who has a hard time sleeping,” says Martin. “It never goes away. They deal with it every single day.”
Riddle, who was drafted into the Army in 1966, says he still copes with the loss of his brothers-in-arms.
“I can live with it, but it took me a long time,” he says. “I still see every one of their faces, to this day.”
He says he hopes Martin’s artistry inspires the public to be kinder to veterans. According to him, his family members were the only ones to welcome him home when he returned to Haywood County in 1968.
“I’m proud of what they’re doing for our veterans now that are coming home. The Vietnam veterans never got that,” says Riddle. “I just want to recognize the Vietnam veterans. It’s way past due.”
Martin, who says she never anticipated becoming a painter, says she is honored to be a part of these mobile memorials and treasures the bond she’s fostered with Hardin and Riddle.
There is one text message, she says, she will never delete because it means so much to her.
“It says, ‘Everybody that passes me on my way to the shop slows down to take a look. One car from South Carolina, I had to pass him three times because he kept going back and forth,’” she reads from her cellphone, “‘I know it hit home with him. I’ve got to go, I’m getting tears. Thank you. You just gave justice to all who served, and the 58,220 we lost.’ That was powerful for me.”