Lake Park United Methodist Church
Lake Park, Georgia
29 May 2011
My flag will be at half staff tomorrow … why? … because tomorrow is Memorial Day, and that
sets the theme for my message this morning.
Just what is Memorial Day? Well, it’s a United States federal holiday observed on the last
Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U.S. soldiers who
died while in the military service. It was first enacted to honor Union and Confederate
soldiers following the American Civil War, and it was extended after World War I to honor
Americans who have died in all wars.
Most folks consider Memorial Day in a couple of different ways:
One – It is seen as a time for family gatherings, reunions, picnics; and the beginning of
Two – It is also seen as a time of remembrance of those who died in service of their country.
I feel sure that those who made the ultimate sacrifice would not object to Americans using
the holiday to celebrate life. We probably would not have that privilege without their sacrifice.
No one is immune from the loss of friends and family members. Death is inevitable, and we
all grieve for our departed loved ones. For the families and friends of our military personnel
lost in the line of duty, I believe the impact is a little different. Not only have their loved ones
died a violent death, but most were very young; their future snuffed out by a bullet, a
bayonet, an explosion, or an aircraft crash. Time has a way of softening grief, and as months
and years go by, many survivors seem to add pride to their feelings … pride in the fact that
their loved ones died fighting for their country. That is not say that their grief has gone away
… it never should, but there seems to be some comfort in the knowledge that they had the
courage and commitment to do their duty, even if it could lead to the ultimate sacrifice. There
are people who harbor bitterness at their loss, and have not been able to find peace. I
believe these folks are in need of our prayers. We should make a special effort to remember
them on Memorial Day.
For most veterans, particularly combat veterans, Memorial Day is a time of bitter-sweet
memories of very difficult times. For us, it is a time to remember not only the horrors of war,
but also a time of immense pride in our brothers and sisters in arms who died in service to
our country. Their devotion to duty and dedication to the preservation of our liberty are
unsurpassed by any other segment of our population. Many of us lost friends in war, and we
think of them often --- not just on holidays. But holidays serve as reminders that so many
others also died.
I personally prefer not to dwell on their deaths, but on the lives they lived in service to our
nation. There is a common thought among veterans that we fought for each other, and most
who died did so for us. I think there is a lot of truth in that, but I can’t help but think that, all
things considered, they died for all Americans.
Near the end of my first Vietnam tour as an Army Helicopter pilot, I was sent to a place called
Dak To. The mountains nearby were the scenes of some of the most intense, ferocious
fighting imaginable. The worst took place a couple of days before my arrival, and my first
mission was to transport dead soldiers from outlying areas to the base at Dak To. That
dreadful mission lasted nearly all day, and was the most heart-wrenching single day of my
wartime experience. I had other missions that were just as intense, but none that produced
such uninterrupted emotion as that one. I flew all day with tears in my eyes. Those certainly
are not pleasant memories, but with the passage of time, my grief has been tempered with
the pride and gratitude I feel for those valiant soldiers who gave all.
Before I went to war the first time, I was given some advice by a senior non-commissioned
officer. He was nearing retirement after more than 30 years in the infantry. The old sergeant
was a veteran of the Korean war and two tours in Vietnam. When he spoke, we rookies
listened. He advised me not to get too close to the men around me. He said it would be very
hard to do, but if I could manage it, it would be a little easier to endure the loss of fellow
soldiers. I failed miserably! I found it impossible to remain aloof, and not become close
friends with my fellow pilots and crews. We lived in tents together ... we ate together ... we
partied together ... we grieved together ... we flew together … and we fought our enemies
together. We did so much together that we later began to refer to each other as brothers.
We still do to this day. Our relationship brings to mind the following excerpt from the St.
Crispen’s Day Speech, taken from William Shakespeare's Henry V:
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.
Last month Sonja and I traveled to San Antonio to attend a small reunion with about eighteen
of my fellow pilots and crew members. The first day we were all together, we spoke briefly of
our departed brethren. We did not dwell on their loss ... we spoke of their lives, including
some humorous antics that I won’t mention here. There was no need for us express grief or
sadness. We all knew how each other felt. Perhaps we just didn’t want to put a damper on
the festive mood, or maybe we sub-consciously wanted to shield our wives from the uglier
side of our time together. Whatever the reason, we didn’t discuss our losses until the
banquet on our last night, when we toasted “our departed brethren.” It was just that short,
and the gathering remained upbeat from then on. Sometimes, though, something said would
trigger a memory for a couple of us. We would give each other a knowing look and an almost
imperceptible nod ... and say nothing. We didn’t have to. It was almost like we could read
each other’s thoughts.
We won’t be together on Memorial Day, but I believe every one of us will spend a little time
thinking about each other and our brothers whose names appear on a memorial wall in
The loss of life because of the Vietnam war has not ended. A couple of years ago, I lost a
dear friend to cancer attributed to the defoliant called “Agent Orange.” Most of us were
exposed to that chemical, and we thought it was safe at the time. I, myself, sprayed the
chemical from a helicopter on several occasions, and at the end of each mission, my uniform
was soaked with it. Now, I’m being monitored by a Veterans Administration hospital, and so
far, I have no symptoms associated with Agent Orange.
From the American Civil War through the Vietnam war, we have recorded approximately one
and one-half million combat deaths. I don’t know the numbers for today’s war against terror,
but you can be sure our young people approach their duties with the same devotion and
sacrifice as their predecessors. I ask for your prayers for all of our military personnel who are
currently in harm’s way, whether or not you agree with their mission in those far away
places. Remember, they are there because our government sent them there. They are
simply doing their sworn duty, and many are paying a terrible price.
Tomorrow, some folks will go to cemeteries and place flags on the graves of veterans who
have died. Not all were combat losses, but all are honored for their service to their country.
Many people do not have friends or relatives who were combat losses, but I contend that
they, too, owe a debt of gratitude to those who fell. Regardless of how you spend this
Memorial Day please take a moment to remember our war dead, and offer thanks for their
My personal feelings are strong for all who gave their lives, but perhaps somewhat selfishly, I’
m going to mention a few names that will echo in my thoughts this Memorial Day:
Branaugh, Nesset, Harrington, Ives, Dickinson, and Brucker. There are so many more, but
these seem to occupy a special place in my mind.
I guess the point I have tried to convey to you this morning is that Memorial Day is a day of
mixed emotions. To me, it is a day of reflection on the loved and lost, but it’s also a day to
celebrate their lives and honor them for their sacrifice. It’s a day of fun-filled activities with
friends and family, and during quiet times, even a time for sorrow … and that’s OK, as long
as we don’t dwell on the heartache.
For those of you who have not visited a National Cemetery, you should try to do it some day.
Of course, they are beautiful, and quiet with none of the hustle-bustle of the city. If you react
the way I do on those hallowed grounds, your emotions will overflow. To me, there almost
seems to be a feeling of inner calm and peace. It’s as if there is a soothing, collective voice
from the men and women buried there, telling me that they are at peace, and pleading with
me to feel the same. If I happen to be at a National Cemetery where friends are buried, I
may even shed a tear at their grave sites. Even if I know no one there, and a funeral is being
conducted nearby, my emotions get the best of me, and I tend to weep a little as the bugler
plays the mournful sound of taps and I hear the reports of the rifle shots rendering the
traditional salute. Visits to these beautiful places never fail to remind me of Duty, Honor, and
WELL … you have listened to this old soldier long enough. I’ll wrap this up with a short poem
written in 1893 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Decoration Day by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Sleep, comrades, sleep and rest
On this Field of the Grounded Arms,
Where foes no more molest,
Nor sentry's shout alarms!
Ye have slept on the ground before,
And started to your feet
At the cannon's sudden roar,
Or the drum's redoubling beat.
But in this camp of Death
No sound your slumber breaks;
Here is no fevered breath,
No wound that bleeds and aches.
All is repose and peace,
Untrampled lies the sod;
The shouts of battle cease,
It is the Truce of God!
Rest, comrades, rest and sleep!
The thoughts of men shall be
As sentinels to keep
Your rest from danger free.
Your silent tents of green
We deck with fragrant flowers;
Yours has the suffering been,
The memory shall be ours.
|Memorial Day Message
29 May 2011
Air Force Service:
Air Force Years