The Meaning of Memorial Day

Print Share on LinkedIn Comments More

Fort Sam Houston on Sunday. Photo by Don Mathis.

She said she had heard about those shoes.

Back in the day, Building 171 at Kelly Air Force Base was a huge warehouse of a building – and the Vietnam War meant that every square foot of it was used. In the 1970s, walls separated different departments and partitions separated the various offices and smaller hallways.

The partitions were the government-green kind; drab and official. You could barely see the tops of the heads of people standing and could only catch a glimpse of their shoes as they walked by.

Taps during the funeral of Roy Beryle Montgomery Jr., Master Sergeant in the U.S Army, the father of my friend David Montgomery,  November 9, 2013. Photo by Don Mathis.

Taps during the funeral of Roy Beryle Montgomery Jr., Master Sergeant in the U.S Army, the father of my friend David Montgomery, November 9, 2013. Photo by Don Mathis.

Not many people used the east entrance to the Directorate of Energy Management after the shift started. But this morning, the doors opened wide. The morning sun flashed down the waxed floors and visitors entered.

And then, a strange sound – taps. Taps on the shoes gave a metallic sound as they hit the tile. And it was more than one pair of shoes – and they were marching in unison. I was watching the floor under the partition, waiting for a glimpse of the source of this unusual sound.

Two pairs of black oxfords, spit-shined to a high gloss, walked by. I rose from my desk to see who was wearing such strange footwear and where they were going. My boss was at the end of the partition, ushering people back to their desks.

I caught a glimpse of two soldiers in their Class “A” uniforms talking softly to a co-worker. She looked sad.

She explained it all to me the next week. She said she had heard about those shoes.

Federal manuals state that the next of kin of a soldier who has died will be notified by a uniformed service representative. He or she will wear the Class “A” uniform and present a professional and soldierly appearance when making notification.

My co-worker’s son served in the military and she knew he had died even before she saw the notification team.  The spit and polished members of the ‘bad news bearers’ present an impressive image but it is a sight no one wants to see. The taps of their shoes a sound no one wants to hear.

Presentation of the flag during the July 2012 funeral of Pierre Anthony Tisdale, LTC, US.. Air Force, WW II, Korea, Vietnam. Photo by Don Mathis.

Presentation of the flag during the July 2012 funeral of Pierre Anthony Tisdale, LTC, US.. Air Force, WW II, Korea, Vietnam. Photo by Don Mathis.

The film, "We Were Soldiers," depicts a time during the Vietnam War when telegram notification, delivered by taxi drivers, was the method of informing the next of kin of battlefield casualties.  The complaints created by this system prompted the military to create notification teams like the ones that visited my friend.  A more recent movie, "The Messenger," portrays current day scenarios.

Whether or not a soldier died in the line of duty or years after being discharged, any member who served honorably is eligible for burial in a National Cemetery.  On Memorial Day, local Boy Scouts place thousands of flags by the gravestones of veterans buried at Fort Sam Houston.

The sea of red, white, and blue fluttering in the spring breeze is more memorable than the smell of a backyard barbeque.  Pay a visit to the National Cemetery on Memorial Day. It will lift your soul.

For the Soldiers Who Returned Too Soon by Don Mathis

David Bernhardt became my friend when I got out of the Army in 1973. We shared many experiences for a while and then he joined the Navy. His military occupational specialty was to put out fires whenever a jet crashed on his aircraft carrier. He used to joke, “I’ve been in the Navy 10 years, and I’ve never had to do my job.” Fortunately for him, no planes crashed on his watch. Unfortunately, he died in 1996. Photo by Don Mathis.

David Bernhardt became my friend when I got out of the Army in 1973. We shared many experiences for a while and then he joined the Navy. His military occupational specialty was to put out fires whenever a jet crashed on his aircraft carrier. He used to joke, “I’ve been in the Navy 10 years, and I’ve never had to do my job.” Fortunately for him, no planes crashed on his watch. Unfortunately, he died in 1996. Photo by Don Mathis.

How does a small Texas town
grieve for its native son?
Front-page news and letters
in the daily paper are run.
Friends call the soldier's family
to see what can be done.

Cards and expressions of sympathy
are sent to the next of kin.
People reach out to help
as they would do for a friend.
A realization is gained
of what it means to be an American.

Ribbons that say, "Support Our Troops,"
mean more in this part of the state
than Red, White, and Blue decals
or flags by the license plate.
It means we carry our brother
and not complain about the weight.

Water cannons shower the runway
as the special cargo touches down.
The deafening roar of jet engines
fills the air with sound.
Such is the tribute at the airport
in this proud but rural town.

 

The grave stone of Harold Walker, Don Mathis' uncle. "He was older than most (born 1909) when he joined the military in WWII. He could tell you when the first car came through his little town in Arkansas and what the Beatles sang on Ed Sullivan. Hoss was a well-rounded individual – lovable and jovial. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore." Photo by Don Mathis.

The grave stone of Harold Walker, Don Mathis' uncle. "He was older than most (born 1909) when he joined the military in WWII. He could tell you when the first car came through his little town in Arkansas and what the Beatles sang on Ed Sullivan. Hoss was a well-rounded individual – lovable and jovial. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore." Photo by Don Mathis.

Hundreds attend the funeral -
a motorcycle escort waits outside.
The Patriot Guard shows support,
saluting the soldier's last ride.
It's enough to make a downcast heart
beat fast and swell with pride.

The funeral cortege, two miles long,
glides on down the way.
Someday the county will make another monument
to honor those passed away.
And future children will stop by
to see what the words in stone shall say.

Today, the grave is flowered,
decorated and festooned.
But the grief is raw and red,
as an open wound.
And we recall this soldier -
and others - who returned too soon.

*Featured/top image: Fort Sam Houston on Sunday, May 25, 2014. Photo by Don Mathis.

Related Stories:

Poetry to Commemorate Veterans Day as Day of the Dead

Veteran Healing and Integration at Future Patriots’ Casa

From the Front Lines to the Classroom: What It Means to Serve

Countdown to Eternity: JFK’s Last Good Day Spent in San Antonio

A JFK Remembrance: Air Force One and a Fort Sam Houston Flyover

7 thoughts on “The Meaning of Memorial Day

  1. I pay a visit to my grandfather every year. He is currently at rest at Fort Sam National Cemetary. Rest in peace Benito Lopez and my prayers go out to all servicemen and women who proudly serve their country ever day.

  2. My dad and one of my uncles are buried in a section very much like this one at Fort Sam. Thank you for speaking so eloquently, for me and other military families.

  3. Don, Thank you for the tribute to the veterans at Fort Sam.

    Today, the grave shared by mother and father flies the flag at Fort Sam Houston. Just a few months ago, at age 92, my mother passed away and is once more with her lifelong love, partner and loving husband. My father was proud of two things, his service to his country and his family. My parents are in good company with others of like mind and motivation. We owe them all so much.

  4. Nice work, Don.

    In addition to celebrating Memorial Day while in San Antonio, I’ve also celebrated Canada Day while in Vancouver, British Colombia and Anzac Day while in Melbourne, Australia. Perhaps in the near future I will be in Costa Rica on December 1, the day Costa Rica’s military was abolished (in 1948).

  5. Thank you, Don, for the recognition of the many who are buried in the National Cemetery at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio and in cemeteries all over the world. Your poetry, prose, and pictures paint a warm and vivid reminder of what Memorial Day means.

  6. Don

    Thanks for bringing the importance of patriotism to the Rivard Report. You have infused each significant day with relevance and meaning, and many in our audience are learning for the first time about these historic commemorations through your good prose and verse. –RR

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *