By Marty Bachman
Memorial Day service was held at the war memorial on the lawn of the downtown courthouse Monday morning, with many Ely citizens, dignitaries and veterans on hand to celebrate the lives of local fallen soldiers and the many who served. A brass band provided solemn compositions while the harmonious voices of a mixed men’s and women’s choir resonated throughout the park.
White Pine County Commissioner Richard Howe, a Vietnam War-era army veteran who lost a brother in the conflict, opened the program, thanking the many who attended and the many others who gave all for their country.
Howe spoke of the final WWI member of the community who recently passed, and the few WWII and Korean War veterans who were also soon to be “extinct.”
He remembered the disrespect he was shown while traveling through airports as a soldier in uniform during that era. He said he had tambourines shoved in his face, he was spat at and despised by many, but that today, things were changing and that Vietnam-era veterans were finally receiving the respect they earned.
Ely Mayor Melody VanCamp welcomed the crowd on behalf of the city of Ely and offered that the only battle worth waging was one for peace.
White Pine American Legion Post 3 Commander Ken Curto, a Vietnam veteran, asked the question, “Was it worth it?” and then elaborated that this was a question often asked of family members and war buddies of fallen soldiers.
He related a story of Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, a combat veteran who lost his youngest son, 1st Lt. Robert Kelly, in Afghanistan in 2010.
In response to the same question posed to him in an interview by National Public Radio, the general said it was a question that could only be answered by the person who lost their life.
“…I believe what they would say is that they were doing what they wanted to do,” he said. “They were where they wanted to be.”
Gen. Kelly said that it was not a question for the survivors to answer.
“I think it’s for those young people to answer,” he said. “And I think they do answer it with their actions… and obviously, their lives.”
Curto said that just as we should not presume to speak for the fallen, we can make the country for which they have died a better place.
“One that honors their sacrifice and epitomizes the ideals enshrined in our constitution,” Curto said.
Curto spoke of a letter a soldier from Georgia had sent to his mother, in which he told her, if I make it or not, it’s all part of the plan.
“It can’t be changed, only completed,” the soldier wrote. “Mother will be the last word I say. Your face will be the last picture that goes through my eyes.”
The private died soon after penning the letter.
Curto said the Legion would always be proud of the millions of soldiers that made the supreme sacrifice for the United States since the country’s founding.
“Gen. Kelly is right,” Curto said. “Was it worth it is the wrong question for us to answer. Instead we should commit ourselves to make it worth it.”
Curto said that Americans should insist on a country where patriotism trumps politics, where the flag is displayed proudly and where military veterans are the true celebrities.
“We must never forget the families of our fallen,” he said. “Long after the battlefield guns have been silenced and the bombs stop exploding, the children of our fallen warriors will still be missing a parent, spouses will be without their life partners; parents will continue to grieve for their heroic sons and daughters that died way to early. We need to be there for them, not just as members of the American Legion family — but as American citizens.”
Curto said that while we can’t replace those who never returned, we can offer shoulders to cry on, assistance with educational expenses; and assurances that their loved one’s sacrifices are never forgotten. He said that while there was nothing unpatriotic about the activities most people enjoy on Memorial Day, we were gathered at the park that day to reflect on what he described as the true meaning of the holiday.
“Let us remember that tyrannical regimes have been toppled and genocides stopped because Americans sacrificed life and limb,” Curto said. “Let us remember that without a U.S. military, the world be a far more oppressive and darker place. Let us remember that freedom never had a greater friend than the American soldier, sailor, airman, marine and coast guardsman.”
Curto then told the story of a letter President Abraham Lincoln sent to a Boston widow who had lost five sons in the Civil War.
“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” Lincoln wrote to the woman. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.”
To us, Curto said, the sacrifice made to preserve the union and end slavery was worth it. But the answer is more complex when it’s our son, daughter, wife or husband who are the one to be sacrificed.
“So while the ‘was it worth it’ question can only truly be answered by those who made the sacrifice, it is up to all of us to make it worth it,” Curto said.
VFW Commander Chris Dailey of Ely’s James Jewell Post 3547, who served on a submarine during the Vietnam War, said he was recently asked by a young man, “why do we still celebrate Memorial Day?” He said that he searched his mind for an answer; not an answer he would give to his fellow service member but rather one that would give meaning to the indifferent inquiries.
“It celebrates and solemnly reaffirms from year to year, a national faith and embodies our belief that the dead shall not have died in vain,” Dailey said. “The service members we honor today came from all walks of life but shared the fundamental qualities of courage, pride, determination, selflessness, dedication to duty and integrity — all qualities needed to serve a cause greater than one’s self.”
Daily described the fallen service members as ordinary people who responded in extraordinary ways in extreme times.
“They rose to the nation’s call to protect a nation which has given them and us so much,” he said.
He reminded everyone of the millions who had fought and died at home and abroad to defend freedoms and how today troops continue to engage in battle, following the footsteps of their warrior ancestors who fought to correct injustices.
“We have awarded medals and honors to many service members, added their names to monuments and buildings to honor them for their bravery, but nothing can replace the hole left behind by a fallen service member, and no medals or ribbons can comfort the ones left behind,” Dailey said.
He said that gatherings across the country similar to the one being held in Ely were a small way to honor the ones who had sacrificed their lives so others could live in freedom.
“We set this day apart to honor those now gone who made the cause of America their supreme choice,” Dailey told the audience. “Your presence here today — and that of the people gathering all across America — is a tribute to those service members who shivered and starved through the winter at Valley Forge, to the doughboys crouched in muddy trenches of France, to the platoons that patrolled the hazy jungles of Vietnam, and the young men and women patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan, Iraq and throughout the Middle East and wherever people are being oppressed.”
Dailey ended his tribute with the words of former President Ronald Reagan, who said, “I can’t claim to know the words of all the national anthems in the world, but I know of none other that ends with a question and a challenge as ours does; ‘does that flag still wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’”
“That is what we must all ask,” Dailey said.