While speakers and guests at Memorial Day services around the county came from each branch of the Armed Forces and fought in every war from World War II to Operation Freedom’s Sentinel — the current war in Afghanistan — the message was the same across the ranks, branches and ages: don’t waste the gift of freedom your nation’s fallen soldiers have given you.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Austin Eugene Smith addressed those gathered at St. Augustine of Canterbury Cemetery in Hecker and spoke about the decline of civility and civic responsibility in America. He remembered having to wear civilian clothes to work at the Pentagon so he wouldn’t be assaulted for being military personnel. But he also remembered coming to fully understand the gift of freedom through his travels across the world over the course of 34 years in the military.
“I’ve been to countries where freedom is a theory and not a reality,” Smith said. “I’ve seen enough to fully appreciate the freedoms that we Americans sometimes take for granted.”
Smith lamented the lack of investment in society by so many today — often including those running for political office.
“I wonder how the ultimate sacrifice paid for by our military men and women to build a civilized society and a great country have been forgotten by our leaders in their quest for self-importance,” he said.
He urged attendees to appreciate the cost of our freedoms.
“Take a moment to remember those who didn’t make it home, and their loved ones, those whose bravery and dedication protecting the principles that made our country great cost them their lives.”
Larry Birkner, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, reflected on his time there and agreed with much of what the colonel said during the Hecker program.
“We’ve changed as a country,” he said. “Memorial Day is a time to reflect on that.”
Vietnam veteran Capt. Steve Wheat of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War participated in the Hecker service as part of a Civil War re-enactment camp and read aloud the names of several local residents who died in battle.
“Think of them as neighbors you never met,” he said before leading attendees in a singing of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” while playing banjo.
At the Monroe County Courthouse, spread across the lush grass under the canopies of the old trees that line the grounds, attendees listened to Columbia resident Dustin Row, founder of Songs4Soldiers and an Army veteran, as he spoke.
Row recounted his deployment to Iraq, where he was in a convoy that was ambushed, costing the lives of several of his comrades. He also recounted the story of his friend and fellow soldier, Sgt. Keith Matthew “Matt” Maupin, who was taken prisoner in 2004 and held by Al Qaida until his execution. His remains were not located until 2008.
Row spoke about learning to focus on celebrating lives rather than losses, and he established Songs4Soldiers to help him do that by providing assistance to veterans struggling to establish their post-service lives. To date, his organization has raised more than $130,000 and helped more than 75 veterans.
Row urged listeners to appreciate everything they have, that which countless soldiers lost their lives preserving.
“Don’t waste a day,” he told them.
At the Columbia American Legion, veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars were honored.
Claudia Asselmeier, regent of the Whiteside Station Chapter National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, spoke to attendees about remembering the sacrifices made to protect American freedoms.
Asselmeier read a letter from Cyndi Valencia, state chairman for DAR service veterans, who wrote, “Today we shall push the scale of patriotism… toward our highest marks… as we remember those who have gone before us to serve the nation.”
The ceremony concluded with the laying of a ceremonial wreath at the doughboy statue in front of the legion hall.
Valmeyer welcomed as their guest speaker retired Air Force Col. Forrest Keaton, who spoke about the first Memorial Day service he ever attended — at the Valmeyer American Legion, some 60 years ago, and the powerful symbolism he felt when they rang the bell for the fallen veterans.
He also spoke about the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” in which a group of soldiers led by a character played by Tom Hanks is sent into the European theater of World War II to retrieve a soldier whose brothers have all been killed in action and bring him home safely to his family. As Hanks’s character lay dying of wounds sustained in a battle from trying to get Ryan to safety, he speaks to him the words that surely resonate among all veterans and families of those killed in service to the country — “Earn this. Earn it.”
We have a duty, he added, to earn and be deserving of the freedom that so many died to secure for us.
(With reporting from Corey Saathoff, Alan Dooley, Sean McGowan and Kermit Constantine)