Active duty military, veterans, employees and visitors gazed solemnly at 640,000 red poppies as they passed though “D Courtyard” in USAA‘s headquarters in San Antonio Tuesday morning.
Each small, fabric flower represents an American military life lost since World War I. Attendees of USAA’s Memorial Day ceremonies, centered around the theme “Why We Honor Them,” knew all too well that to stay technically accurate, more flowers would have to be added to the Memorial Poppy Walls every day.
Each poppy also represents a unique story, as do the memorials that will be held throughout the week and weekend recognizing Memorial Day on Monday, May 30. The walls are located in the connection corridor between USAA’s visitor complex and the rest of the massive Pentagon-like complex. It took 53 people 10 days to construct the two 72-foot long clear glass walls that could be moved throughout the 0.75 mile-long building.
Retired U.S. Army Gen. Jason Kamiya, USAA senior vice president, brought the story of his father, U.S. Army Pfc. Lawrence Masanobu Kamiya, to the crowd of employees and invited guests to the Gen. Robles Auditorium.
His father was a World War II veteran of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat and spoke very little after the war of his days alongside the all Japanese-American battalion from Hawai’i. “He simply did his duty.”
Pfc. Kamiya enlisted before the attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese fighter planes.
“In surviving he was filled with a variety of emotions: anxiety of the reality that war was upon us; uncertainty about the future of Japanese-Americans as the enemy shared the same ethnicity; loyalty to America, his country of birth; and a deep resolve to defend it despite the cost,” Gen. Kamiya said.
There were not as many internment camps for Japanese-Americans back home in Hawai’i, he said after the ceremony, but his father’s battalion was “determined to prove (their) loyalty.”
The Honolulu internment camp was recognized as a national monument last year.
U.S. Marine Cpl. Michael Reagan, a retired veteran of the Vietnam War, has brought several of stories just like Kamiya’s to the forefront with his art and dedication to fallen heroes and shared several on Tuesday. His presentation was paired with a video introduction to his work, the Fallen Heroes Project, crafting delicate black and white portraits in pencil for the families of those killed in the global war on terror. While he also does celebrity portraiture, so far he has drawn more than 4,500 portraits for veteran families at no charge.
“We have come across a powerful approach to the memory of our father by a man who has dutifully chosen to honor this day in a unique way, using a unique talent, to ensure that each unique life is remembered for generations to come,” Gen. Kamiya said as he introduced Reagan.
Cpl. Reagan could never dream of charging a family for his work, in fact he sees his artwork as his way of “trying to pay back my friends” that have lost their lives. “This human being died for me and (they) didn’t know me,” Reagan said in the video.
Families of several local men and women that Reagan has drawn portraits for were in the audience on Tuesday.
Reegan’s unit was attacked in Vietnam on March 28, 1968.
“(Armstrong) died instantly when a mortar round when off at his feet,” Reagan said. “Santaniello was the second person I saw. … I took him in my arms, Doc’s trying to fix him – trying to fix the bleeding. We weren’t going to succeed but I wanted to be sure that he wasn’t alone.”
Santaniello looked up at Reagan and said, “Mike I just want to go home.”
“Then he closed his eyes and died,” Reagan said.
The Fallen Heroes Project is a way to “get some part of them home,” he said. “I maybe drawing a portrait, but believe me I’m writing a story.”
While he lamented that the requests for portraits keep pouring in and war wages abroad, Reagan said he is honored to be considered a part of these veterans families.
The family of Sgt. 1st Class Monti, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 2009, gave Reagan one of the coins made to commemorate Monti’s service. He has kept it in his pocket every day since.
The mood was thoughtful and sanguine after the ceremony as guests and employees lingered in D Courtyard to inspect the poppies. The building itself is military-inspired in its set up and architecture: efficient and beige. USAA, founded in 1922 by a group of Army officers that were frustrated with civilian car insurance companies, is second only to H-E-B in terms of local workforce size with 17,000-plus local employees, many of which are military veterans.
Veteran Arturo Escobar, commander of the American Legion Alamo Post 2, said there’s always work to be done to improve how the U.S. government treats its veterans.
“We’re standing up, we’re supportive,” Escobar said, who attended the ceremony at USAA last year as well.
USAA CEO Stuart Parker is a member of Alamo Post 2, Escobar added, and USAA has had a tremendous impact on the veteran population of San Antonio, often called Military City USA, by providing jobs, insurance, banking and more for U.S. service men and women across the U.S. and abroad.
Update: USAA has provided a time-lapse video capturing the construction of the poppy walls: