DECATUR, Ala. — In an emotional ceremony befitting a hero, the Austin Junior ROTC returned service medals to the family of a former student who served in Iraq and died in an automobile accident in 2006.

“This is the highest honor a father can receive,” a tearful Jeffrey Hitt said just moments after he received a plaque with the medals his son, Ace Hitt, earned as a member of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.

Ace, a 2003 Austin graduate, was 21 when he died at Huntsville Hospital on Oct. 26, 2006, following a wreck on Alabama 20 near Bibb Garrett Road.

He was buried in Roselawn Cemetery next to an uncle who was also a veteran. At some point after his funeral, JROTC instructor Lt. Col. James Walker received a pouch containing Ace’s service medals.

Walker said he remembers getting the medals, but he was emotional and he couldn’t remember who gave them to him.

“I don’t know if it was the funeral home or someone in the community,” he said.

Sgt. First Class Billy Taunton didn’t join the JROTC program as a teacher until after Ace graduated, but he found the medals in a desk in his office while the JROTC program was preparing to move out of a classroom this past summer. The move was to make space for the welding program when Austin moves to its new building near Modaus Road Southwest and Shady Grove Lane.

The medals were in a small bag with Roselawn Funeral Home printed on the outside.

“I put them aside, but I thought we have got to do something with this,” Taunton said.

Alex Cox, a junior student in charge of public relations for JROTC, found Ace’s older sister, Lacey Barrios, through social media, and Taunton reached out to her.

“I was super touched and overwhelmed,” Barrios said about the message from Taunton. “After all these years, to get a message that someone wants to give the family medals is special.”

Ace’s younger sister, Crystal Hitt, was 15 when he died and she may know how the medals ended up at Austin. She wasn’t sure if the ones the family received on Wednesday were the same ones, but she said she brought some of her brother’s medal to the school after his death.

“I wanted his name to live on,” Crystal said. “Instead of letting them sit in a drawer somewhere, I wanted his story to be told by somebody and for people to know that we were proud of him.”

Ace’s story of service started when he was a seventh-grader and attended Lyman Ward Military Academy in Camp Hill near Auburn, his father said.

He came from a family of servicemen, so his decision to join the JROTC didn’t surprise Jeffrey Hitt.

Walker said when Ace walked into class the first day he was a “focused young man” who was committed to serving his country and the military.

“He was adamant about serving his country and didn’t take this lightly,” he said.

After graduating from Austin, Ace joined the military and served several tours in Iraq. His father said he was an assault gunner on the front lines.

“I didn’t get any peace when he was overseas,” Jeffrey Hitt said. “He would call me, but he was very secretive and didn’t disclose a lot about where he was or what they were doing. You just pray. That’s all you can do.”

Ace was out of the Army when his accident occurred in 2006, but Barrios said he planned to go back and make a career of the military.

“He would love this,” she said about Wednesday’s program. “He would be proud.”

Ace’s father said he almost didn’t agree to the program because he doesn’t want people to think the family is trying to “get glory” off his son’s death.

“But I decided this is about him,” Jeffrey Hitt said. “He’s my son, but he’s one of the finest young men I have ever known.”

“I agree,” Walker said. “He was a good young man.”


Information from: The Decatur Daily, http://www.decaturdaily.com/decaturdaily/index.shtml