This weekend we commemorate Memorial Day, which started as an event to honor Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War.. After World War I, it was extended to include all men and women who died in any war or military action and today ceremonies often include all veterans who have recently passed away.
I am connected to veterans in many ways, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a niece, a cousin and a friend. But I am not a veteran and I do not have the experience of the “band of brothers or sisters” or the lifelong bonds formed on the battlefield as I have not experienced military life personally.
But I do have the experiences of being around veterans and their activities all of my life. My first memories of Memorial Day are going with my grandma to the local five and dime store to pick up bundles of peonies that had been specially shipped to our small town. We would then take the peonies and go to the cemeteries where her loved ones rested. It was an all day event. As I grew older I remember first riding on a float and then marching in the annual Memorial Day parade. It would start at our local American Legion Post and proceed down the main street until we arrived at the cemetery. We would jump off a flatbed truck and with our hands full of bunches of poppies we would scatter to all corners to lay them on graves. At that age, I had not a clue what I was really doing. A veteran didn’t have a real meaning for me. That was about to change for me. When I was 11 my dad, a veteran of WWII sat my brothers and myself down and told us he was going away to have an operation, he wanted us to be good for our mother and to take care of her. Over the next few months and years we became well educated about Veterans Hospitals and who and what a veteran was. He passed away nine years later and so today I honor him.
When I was in high school it was the height of the Vietnam war. My brother was an Air Force medic and although he never left the states, there was always that possibility. In a day where you watched the news on the Huntley- Brinkley report it sometimes took days or weeks to hear of a casualty. One of those casualties was the only son of a widowed farm wife and the brother of my classmate KIA in 1968.It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 50 years when 3,500 Marines arrived in DaNang in March of 1965. And so today I honor the memory of that young man and also my cousin, a bronze star recipient, not killed in action, but died because of action.
Along with my husband, I have been privileged to visit many American cemeteries overseas. In the Philippines we visited and laid a wreath at the American cemetery in Manila. One of my distant cousins has his name engraved on a wall there. He was lost on a B-25 in the Pacific during WW II. The staff at the cemetery made a rubbing and gave it to me. And so today I honor his memory. From the Philippines we traveled to Corregidor where the battlements still stand. You can see where the phosphorus landed and ate into the massive guns and you can only imagine what it did when it landed on a soldier. A classmate of my mother, LtC Madeline Ullom was serving as an army nurse in the Malinta Tunnel when she was captured and spent 1000 days in captivity at the Santo Tomas internment camp. And so today I honor her bravery and courage. We went on to Guam and then to Hawaii honoring those lives lost at Pearl Harbor. When you stand on the deck overlooking the sunken battleship USS Arizona occasionally an oil ring will pop to the surface reminding us that even after 75 years there is still a strong connection to those lost that terrible day.
I am sure many of you have seen the movie, The Longest Day, in which a soldier is depicted hanging from a church steeple after his parachute is caught on it. This is reenacted each year in the town of St Mere- Eglise where we headquartered nearby while visiting Omaha Beach, Utah Beach, LaFiere Bridge and the American cemetery It was humbling to be walking on the beach where you could picture wave after wave of men knowing that in all likelihood they would not survive. An so today, I honor the memory of my uncles Joseph and John, US Navy.
We continued on to Flanders Field in Belgium where much to my surprise there were no poppies except out in the ditches and newly turned fields. It turns out that poppies grow the best in soil that is disturbed and with the artillery shots and thousands of graves there was much newly turned soil during WWI. All of the American cemeteries we visited were in pristine condition, row upon row of white headstones.
And so you have heard of my experiences as a daughter, wife, and sister of a veteran but I think the hardest role I have had is the mother of a veteran. Our daughter enlisted in the US Navy in the late 90’s, we were proud of her, she did well, was named Airman of the quarter and then Airman of the Year. We knew she would deploy overseas at some point but nothing prepares you for having your daughter stationed in Japan or Qatar or Mosiah and you are least prepared for the day she calls and says she is deploying on the USS Roosevelt for an undetermined amount of time to the Mediterranean Sea. Staying at home were her husband and one year old son. This was, of course, the beginning of the Iraq war. I tell everyone that the only thing that kept me sane during that time was looking forward to an Iowa State Women’s basketball game. Those games gave me a few hours to think about something else. When the USS Roosevelt retuned to port, it was broadcast on TV and we searched the screen to see our sailor coming home safe.
We honor those who have gone before us, but more importantly, we honor those veterans who are with us today. Thanks to all of you who work so tirelessly in supporting the mission of Quilts of Valor to cover active duty military and veterans in a comforting and healing Quilt of Valor.