Residents across Highland County turned out under blue skies Monday to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation.
In Hillsboro, a large crowd packed bleachers and lawn chairs at the Highland County Veterans Memorial to pay their respects and remember the fallen in a program organized by VFW Post 9094 and made up of other local veteran organizations.
Guest speaker for the Hillsboro event was retired U.S. Army Col. Donald C. McGraw, Jr., who reminded attendees about the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day, with the May holiday devoted to honoring the dead.
McGraw offered a history of the holiday and comments about previous wars, along with noting that the ongoing war on terror is against “extremism that serves no god that any rational man or woman could understand today.”
McGraw spoke of Gold Star families who have lost family members to war, and said he has often been given the responsibility to inform families of their loss.
“The minute they see me in the doorway, they know,” he said, describing reactions that ranged from immediate grief to doors being slammed in his face to long conversations about the loved one’s life.
McGraw illustrated the bravery of those who serve in the armed forces by recounting the story of Cpl. Jonathan Yale and Lance Cpl. Jordan Haerter, two U.S. Marines who stood their ground against a suicide truck bomber in Iraq in 2008, firing bullets into the truck while others ran. The truck’s 2,000 pounds of explosives detonated and claimed their lives, but they saved 150 other lives at a joint security station that was the bomber’s target, said McGraw.
Rather than run, “they leaned into the danger,” said McGraw, noting that they made their decision to defend their station and sacrifice their lives in a matter of six seconds. The incident was captured on security video.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. “Mac” McCray, a veteran of multiple wars including World War II, was again on hand and offered the opening prayer and the benediction. His wife, Judy, also a veteran, described the meaning of each of the 13 folds in the American flag as the Highland County Veterans Honor Guard and local Boy Scouts demonstrated the ceremonial folding.
Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings presented a proclamation and said that rather than refer to fallen soldiers by gentle euphemisms, it should be remembered that “they died.” He referred to a quote from a film that he said reminded him that when someone is killed in battle, “you take away everything he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.”
Highland County Commissioners Tom Horst and Jeff Duncan presented a proclamation, and the Hillsboro High School band played a medley of anthems from each of the armed forces branches, with individuals standing when their branch’s anthem was played.
Rick Wilkin, commander of VFW Post 9094, again emceed the event and also offered Memorial Day historical facts. The Honor Guard conducted a wreath laying ceremony, and Sherry Mills of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary read a Memorial Day poem. Russ Roever offered a tribute to POWs and MIAs, asking for no applause out of respect for them. Kevin Barreras discussed the work of the local Veterans Service Commission.
Accompanied by the HHS band, Alberta Duncan of the VFW Ladies Auxiliary led the singing of the National Anthem and “God Bless America.” She also played “Taps” as Honor Guard members picked up their rifles to fire off a 3-Volley Salute as the program closed.
After the ceremony, wreath layings and 3 Volley Salutes were offered at local cemeteries.
In Greenfield, with a breeze keeping the heat of the late-May sun at bay, Greenfield residents turned out on Monday for the annual Memorial Day parade and cemetery program, organized each year by the Concerned Veterans of Greenfield.
The parade, as is tradition, paused at the center of town for a brief ceremony that included the laying of wreaths at the war memorials, a 21-gun salute, the playing of “Taps,” and prayer. The procession then made its way to the cemetery, community members following alongside for the several-block journey down South Washington Street.
The observance continued with the playing of patriotic songs, prayers for those currently serving, veterans, and the nation, the reading aloud of the names of those who died in service and have passed away since serving, and a call to remember the sacrifices of the nation’s soldiers.
The guest speaker was retired U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jack Baber, who spoke about the beginning of Memorial Day and how an informal gathering to honor the fallen in May 1865 in Charleston, S.C. was the first. In May 1868, a gathering to honor dead Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery was held, he said, and saw the approximately 5,000 mourners place flags and flowers on soldiers’ graves, traditions that carry on today.
First known as Decoration Day, each year the observances grew, Baber said, but it wasn’t until an act of Congress a century after it all began that made Memorial Day a national observance in 1971. And while Baber said it was “unfortunate” that some view this day only as the start of summer, it was created to honor those hundreds of thousands of Americans who have died in wars, from the Civil War to today.
Baber asked those gathered to not only remember the fallen, but also those who have returned from battle and carry “visible and invisible wounds.”
He said a veteran’s organization estimates that an average of 22 veterans per day commits suicide, acts, Baber said, that are likely “a result of what they bear on their hearts.”
“Freedoms are not free,” he said, noting that the freedoms Americans know have come at great costs. He called for a moment of silence afterward to remember not only the dead, but also the broken.
Memorial Day services were also held Monday or over the weekend in Pricetown, Lynchburg and South Salem.
Reach Gary Abernathy or Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456.