Why we remember

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 3, 2006

On Monday, Americans will pause to observe Memorial Day.

As far as some in Lawrence County is concerned, this day is considered the one of the largest and most overtly observed holiday on the calendar. For some, there will be family reunions and parade, for others a festival or party.

For many, Memorial Day is a time to pause and remember why the holiday was enacted — and why for some, this holiday is bittersweet.

Email newsletter signup

To honor the fallen soldier

It is a holiday, and yet it was not intended as a celebration. Memorial Day is, perhaps, the most somber and reflective of all American holidays.

Begun in 1868 to honor the dead on both sides of the Civil War, Memorial Day continues today as an expression of gratitude to those who have paid the price of freedom with the dearest thing they had: Their own lives.

“Memorial Day is to honor fallen soldiers,” said Warren Napier, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars 6878 in Proctorville.

“If not for them, our country would not be what it is today — free. It’s a somber observance for all vets. A lot of people really don’t know what Memorial Day is for — but they need to know.”

Stephen Saunders, commander of the Disabled American Veterans chapter 51, said often the reality of war and its consequences — meant to be the focus of Memorial Day — is lost among the more postcard style images of waving flags and Americana picnics. Reality, he said, is not as pretty as the postcards.

“We need to picture people such as David Ford and the hundreds of thousands of flagged-draped caskets that have come back home. We need to remember the (other war heroes) Donald Longs and Bobby Paytons. These are not people who dropped from space. They were real people. They were our people here,” Saunders said.

“There is a time for picnics but this day is a day of grief, of mourning. This is a day to remember the horrible cost of freedom. We should never forget the broken bodies that walk the halls of VA hospitals every day, and the children who died of birth defects because a parent who was exposed to Agent Orange. This is the real cost of freedom.”

Saunders said it is also a day to remember those who went to war and never returned, either alive or dead. He pointed out that there are still 40,000 service men and women still listed as missing in action on foreign soil from World War II to the present.

“This is who we want to remember,” he said. “It’s a sad occasion, not a celebration.”

Many who have served are grateful their neighbors choose each year to thank them for their service. Ron McFann, commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart 765, said it is hard for him to explain his thoughts on Memorial Day.

“I think about veterans and I start choking up,” he said. “It gives the veterans the respect they deserve. They really don’t get near what they deserve for what they have done. We have a war going on now and we have people killed, coming back wounded.

That’s what its all about.”

A parade in their honor

Some consider Memorial Day to be the most overtly observed holiday on the Lawrence County calendar

— more elaborately observed by some than Christmas or Easter. Some families plan reunions and picnics during the holiday weekend. And then, there is the centerpiece of the Memorial Day weekend: The 138th annual Ironton-Lawrence Memorial Day Parade, a tribute to veterans living and dead, a two and a half -hour long procession that includes everything from Shriners to horse brigades to Civil War reenactment organizations.

This year’s parade may be a bit longer than usual: Organizers said the number of entries has increased. There will be six bands, more than three dozen veteran’s and military groups and individual veterans, participation by a half a dozen or more churches and more than 20 floats.

The parade begins at 10 a.m.

A volunteer effort

There are several dozen people who will volunteer or have volunteered in some way to make the parade and its accompanying memorial services possible.

It begins in January when the Memorial Day parade committee begins monthly meetings to plan the year’s event. A grand marshal and parade commander are chosen by committee membership.

Responsibilities are delegated, such as planning the annual Navy Night and Woodland Cemetery services to contacting prospective participants to alerting the media. By March, meetings are ratcheted up to twice a month and by April the committee meets every Monday.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars post 8850 donates a meeting place for the parade committee at its post home on South Third Street.

Lou Pyles, who is this year’s parade grand marshal estimated that hundreds of thousands of hours are logged each year by people willing to ensure the county’s tradition continues.

“This parade is not something you can put together in a day,” she said.

Why does a person volunteer so many hours to help organize a parade?

“I love my country and my flag,” Pyles said. “I love the freedoms I enjoy every day. And I’m proud of the people who made this possible for me.”

Each year the parade committee honors one of its own with the Joe Williams Award for outstanding service to the parade. The award is named for the late Rev. Joseph Williams, who was a driving force behind the parade for more than three decades. This year’s honoree was Bob Blankenship. Blankenship, who has been a committee member for the last six or eight years and helped organize this year’s Navy Night service, said the honor caught him by surprise.

“I didn’t expect it,” he said. “I didn’t think I deserved it. I’m there to help out. There are people who have been there longer who have worked for the parade and the committee. But it is an honor.”

Past grand marshal Jan Wisenberger said Blankenship was a logical choice.

“Bob is someone who seldom complains about anything. He will do anything you ask of him,” she said.

Blankenship said he always attended the parade and watched it pass from the sidelines and one day, went with other employees from the courthouse to see if they could help the parade committee. They ended up joining.

“There is a lot of work involved. But we have a good time and I think that’s why we enjoy it,” he said.

He said it is important not to lose sight of why there is parade each year, and what it means.

“I think it’s our obligation to honor veterans. They have fought for our freedom,” he said.

Donated time. Donated services. Donated space. The parade committee operates on a small budget and a bounty of local good will. The V.F.W.

provides color guards and gunnery salutes each year for the annual Navy Night and Woodland cemetery services as well as the parade.

On parade day, another army of volunteers come calling. They are not parade committee members and yet the parade would not go on without them: Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops pass out flags, carry division and division name banners and even clean up the streets afterward. Members of the local amateur radio organizations provide communications between volunteers, divisions and even emergency services agencies.

Final thoughts

Pyles said after the last entry has reached the end of the parade route and the last chair is folded and taken home from the sidelines, she hopes those who witnesses this year’s event leave with a lasting understanding that freedom isn’t free and those who fought to ensure those freedoms have an honored place in Lawrence County.

“We love and appreciate our vets and we love the United States of America,” she said. “This is a passion for us. We are passionate about veterans and we want to honor them.”