Memorial Day: It’s not about the Barbecue

By Ray Starmann

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This weekend, millions of Americans will flock to summer homes, ballgames, lakes and the Indy 500. They’ll visit discount stores and car dealers, while looking for the best bargains. They’ll gather in their backyards to sip cool beers and barbecue steaks.

In every crowd, there will be veterans of our past conflicts from World War II to the War on Terror. For veterans, the day means something quite more than a plate of ribs or a boat trip. It’s a time to remember old comrades, those who died for everything we believe in, those who still haunt Fiddler’s Green. For veterans, Memorial Day is often the loneliest day of the year.

In the era of the volunteer military, many civilians who never served regard military heroes as alien characters from a Star Wars movie. But to veterans, they are figures fixed forever in memory. I’d like to mention a few veterans, all deceased, who forever remain in my mind.

My Uncle George joined the Navy Frogmen in World War II. He was as blind as a bat, but nevertheless managed to memorize the Navy eye chart for his physical. He was speeded through the process with apparent 20/20 vision. Before dawn on D-Day at Normandy, Uncle George and his fellow frogmen disabled German mines and obstacles off of Omaha Beach. Strangely, George was the only guy wearing glasses strapped to his head.

Several hours later, our cousin, also named George, landed on Omaha Beach with the V Corps Engineers. During family parties he was often prodded for information. With misty eyes he spoke in hushed tones about what he called the “Greatest day of the 20th century.”

Then there was Mr. Grove, a teacher at the Jesuit prep school I attended. Grove was a medic in the 106th Infantry Division. As a young man, he arrived in the snowy hills of the Ardennes just in time for the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded three times during the Bulge and his stories of that ferocious battle still seem larger than life. He was a quiet, unassuming man who hated violence, but he also knew that freedom was worth dying for.

On Memorial Day, I often think of a man I never knew. His name is 2nd Lt. James Taylor. Taylor was an Army aviator who disappeared in Laos in 1971. His name is inscribed on the silver MIA bracelet I still wear in his remembrance.

Lieutenant-Colonel Eric Kruger was in ROTC with me at Southern Methodist University. Eric was killed in action in Iraq in 2006. He was a dedicated infantry officer who might very well have been promoted to general had he not died.

Then there’s my lifelong friend, Steve Marshall. Steve served as a lieutenant in the Navy for seven years before becoming a FBI Agent. He did two tours in Afghanistan. During his last tour, he was awarded the FBI Medal of Valor for saving the life of a US soldier during a Taliban ambush.

I also remember two of my comrades killed in Operation Desert Storm. While serving with me in the 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry, Sgt. Edwin Kutz and Sgt. Kenneth Gentry were killed in action while fighting the Iraqi Republican Guard on February 26, 1991, during the Battle of Phase Line Bullet.

Mortally wounded, lying on the desert battlefield, Kutz’s last sight was that of Command Sgt. Maj. Ronald Sneed, who dodged enemy tank fire to get to him. Sneed attempted to save Kutz’s life, but to no avail. Sneed knew war better than any man in 4-7 CAV. He had done five tours in Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade and had won enough Silver Stars and Bronze Stars for a whole battalion. I still believe he’s one of the bravest men I will ever know.

And, finally, there’s Capt. Sam Rhea and CWO Hans Gukeisen. Both men were veterans of 4-7 CAV who made the ultimate sacrifice. A friend of mine, Sam was killed in a plane crash in 1997 while serving with Special Forces. CWO Hans Gukeisen was an army aviator who was killed in action in Iraq.

I would like to see Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 1962 speech to the cadets at West Point be made required reading for every American on Memorial Day. For MacArthur so eloquently eulogized the sacrifices of the American serviceman. (Both a text file and audio recording of MacArthur’s speech is accessible online.) At one point, MacArthur said:

“My estimate of him was formed on the battlefield many, many years ago, and has never changed. I regarded him then, as I regard him now, as one of the world’s noblest figures; not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless. His name and fame are the birthright of every American citizen. In his youth and strength, his love and loyalty, he gave all that mortality can give. But when I think of his patience in adversity of his courage under fire and of his modesty in victory, I am filled with an emotion of admiration I cannot put into words. He belongs to history as furnishing one of the greatest examples of successful patriotism. He belongs to posterity as the instructor of future generations in the principles of liberty and freedom. He belongs to the present, to us, by his virtues and by his achievements. In 20 campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand camp fires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his statue in the hearts of his people. From one end of the world to the other, he has drained deep the chalice of courage.”

Yes, America, it’s not about the barbecue.

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