Honoring those who paid the highest price

The Waterloo VFW Firing Squad marches during Monday’s Memorial Day service on the courthouse grounds. For more photos, click here. (Alan Dooley photo)

Those who have fallen while serving in the name of freedom were honored Monday at well-attended Memorial Day services throughout the county. 

Remarks by guest speakers and American Legion and VFW officers provided stark reminders of the tremendous toll to the nation and to the families of those whose deaths came too soon courtesy of the world’s innumerable battlefields.

Columbia Mayor Kevin Hutchinson is joined by Columbia American Legion Honor Guard members and Legion Auxiliary officials in placing a ceremonial wreath at the Doughboy statue on Monday. (Andrea Saathoff photo)

The event’s featured speaker on the courthouse grounds was Robert D. Bryson of the National Cemetery Administration of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Bryson, a 24-year Army veteran who led the Army Mortuary Affairs operations to recover, identify and inter the fallen of 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as working as the POW/MIA liaison officer in Thailand, Laos and China, reminded attendees of the huge cost in lives the U.S. has paid since the founding of the nation.

Nearly 1.2 million servicemen and servicewomen in each war and operation since the Revolutionary War gave their “… blood, sweat and tears… they did not fail us and we must not fail them,” Bryson said.

He called on citizens to show  “…remembrance, gratitude and admiration for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

The ceremony also included the music of the Waterloo Municipal Band, Kaskaskia Trail Barbershoppers and Waterloo VFW Auxiliary soloist Brenda Johnson, along with a moving rendition of “Taps” played by echoing buglers Russ Wolf and Ryan Brandt.

The Valmeyer American Legion Post 901 service welcomed guest speaker retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Thomas W. Ollie, who reminded those in attendance what Memorial Day is really about. 

“Today is a day of remembrance,” he said. “We are called here today to think about the sacrifice of those lives and remember those who died in combat or were causalities of war.”

He quoted Arthur Ashe, who said “True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.” 

“That is were the ultimate sacrifice is made,” Ollie added. “Giving your life in the defense of your country.”

The program also recognized Gold Star Mothers, who have lost sons or daughters in service of the U.S. Armed Forces, with the placement of a wreath.

Waterloo resident Senior Master Sergeant Chad Bruntjens of the 932nd Airlift Wing Scott Air Force Base kept his remarks brief but powerful.

Bruntjens touched on the idea that families of soldiers also make important sacrifices to the country.

“No matter how different each branch of service tends to be, we all share one thing in common, whether you’re an officer or enlisted, and that is an oath,” he said referring to the Oath of Enlistment. “What makes this so special is that it’s not just soldiers who share this commitment. It’s the family members, too.”

The ceremony, held annually at Hecker’s St. Augustine Cemetery, also featured a dove release and music by the St. Augustine Catholic Church Choir and Steve Davis, who combined provided stirring renditions of the “Armed Forces Salute,” “Go Rest High On that Mountain,” “Let There Be Peace On Earth,” and more.

Monroe County State’s Attorney Chris Hitzemann returned for his second Columbia Memorial Day program. He spoke of the nearly 1.2 million servicemen and servicewomen who have died in the 241-year history of the nation.

“Far too many have died in the service to our cause, as they have not only protected our nation, but they have helped to free people worldwide so that they, too, could have liberty and freedom,” Hitzemann said. 

He also spoke of the more than 82,000 servicemen and servicewomen counted as missing in action from World War II to date.

“For some of our veterans, though, we are unable to pay our final respects at a final resting place,” Hitzemann said. “It’s important that we do everything we can to ensure that these individuals return safely home.”

Auxiliary President Janet Janson spoke of the American Legion’s connection with red poppies, which grew in abundance in the fields of France and Belgium where World War I battles had previously raged. The organization has been associated with the red poppy for 100 years.

The program concluded with a 21-gun salute by the American Legion Honor Guard and placing of a ceremonial wreath at the Doughboy statue outside the Legion hall.

(Kermit Constantine, Alan Dooley and Sean McGowan contributed to this story.)

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