MEMORIAL DAY: COMING HOME

 By NORMAN M. COVERT

(Editor’s Note: the following is adapted from a talk prepared for presentation to the Rotary Club of Frederick, Md., May 23, 2012.)

 This is Memorial Day weekend. It is important to ponder that it heralds the homecoming of our young warriors, who gave their most cherished possession, their lives, for our benefit. All around us are the reminders that freedom has never been free and that sometimes our sacrifices are dearer than we can predict or like.

The traditional one-day Decoration Day/Memorial Day has its origin in Mississippi after the War Between the States when a group of Southern ladies decided to mark the graves of both Confederate and Federal soldiers, who had fallen in battle. The tradition took root and we celebrate it nationwide.

Frederick (Md.) Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicated April 30, 1995. (NMC Photo)

We are honoring our fallen heroes this weekend here and in communities throughout the nation. It is fitting and proper.

How thankful we are that our brightest and best young people have chosen to wear the uniform with pride in defense of liberty – and to risk the ravages of combat. Today they choose to serve our country as members of an all-volunteer force. There are no conscripted warriors.

Talk to any combat soldier and you will understand that those who hate war the most are those who must train for it, who must learn to use the weapons of war, and understand the enemy and the theater of war in which they will be forced to survive in order to achieve victory.

These warriors are our children. They are our neighbors’ children, our Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, students, athletes—the heart of our community.

I met an Army private first class at church last week. He was “squared away” in his battle dress uniform. He had arrived the previous Sunday and was obeying his grandmother, who told him to look up the local Evangelical Lutheran Church. It would give him a link to home, she said.

He is fresh out of basic and advanced individual training, assigned to the Signal Brigade, which manages inter-continental communications for the Department of Defense and White House. His job will be vital in the War on Terror. It is his first time away from home and I could see he still bears the mark of his drill sergeants; the bewildered look in his eyes.

How fortunate he is to be assigned to Fort Detrick, which will transition him into a soldier who understands his role in the national security mission. At the same time Frederick promises to be a safe environment.

I wanted him to know I was interested in his welfare. It struck me later that this young soldier, so far from home, represents an opportunity for me to do some payback related to my own time in uniform.

I received a “Greeting,” from Local Board No. 123 in July 1967 ordering me to report to the U.S. Post Office, Newport News, Va., to be inducted into the United States Army. It was the height of the Vietnam War. My family, my neighbors and I wondered about my destiny.

Vietnam’s struggle against communist aggression had escalated into a full-blown war by the time I went to Basic Combat Training at Fort Benning, Ga.

We were allowed an overnight pass after the seventh week and we headed to town crammed in a taxi. We reveled in the G.I. offerings of Columbus and the off-limits attractions of Phenix City, Ala., across the bridge.

We enjoyed being away from the ever-present drill sergeants, consuming adult beverages and comfort food, sharing one hotel room.

Next morning my former school chum the late Charlie Wiggins and I decided to seek something more akin to being home. I suggested attending an Assembly of God Church, my home denomination, knowing we would be welcomed. We were greeted warmly at the door. Just like home, we agreed. When the service ended a lady and her husband insisted we come home with the family for Sunday dinner, offering to give us a ride back to the company street by the 4 p.m. curfew. We couldn’t say, “No!”

I will never forget those couple hours in a comfortable living room away from talk of war, death and destruction.

I was sorry to lose touch with the family over the next year when I was serving in a Combat Engineer Battalion in Germany.  I believe it was God’s will that Charlie and I were the only two in our student detachment at the Army Chaplains School, Fort Hamilton, N.Y., who were not assigned to Vietnam.

During my 51st High School Reunion recently, those of us who served in uniform counted heads and realized the irony that not one of our classmates died in the Vietnam War. Among our group of veterans, several suffered terrible wounds and some significant emotional problems, but they came home.

America’s finest have given their lives in defense of liberty since the Revolution. We had minimal casualties during the Grenada and Panama incursions. When America joined the coalition to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, one local Marine died serving with Bravo Company, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, USMCR.

The Fort Detrick Fitness Center is named in memory of Capt. Jennifer Shafer Odom, who was born on a farm near here in Knoxville, Md. A graduate of the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., she was pilot of a plane flying drug interdiction out of Panama when it crashed in the side of a mountain in Columbia in July 1999.

Final drawing of Minute Man image and Patio Monument for Frederick, Md. Memorial Grounds Park.

In 1986 we dedicated the 29th Division Memorial at Fort Detrick’s Blue and Gray field, listing the names of division members from Frederick who died either on Normandy Beach, D-day 1944, or in the following days.

We thought Operation Desert Storm might mark the end of large scale American involvement in wars when we began planning to refurbish Frederick’s World War I Monument “Victory” and Memorial Grounds Park itself. There being no room for another large memorial in the park, we designed the patio monument to list all our wars and conflicts. We included space for addition of other named conflicts.

Current events tell us we must consider adding those new names.

What a surprise when the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on America by al-Qaeda terrorists marked a declaration of war and start of armed conflict in the War on Terror.

Operation Iraqi Freedom has cost the lives of 72 soldiers and Marines who called Maryland home—four from Frederick and environs. We still have Marylanders serving in harm’s way in Iraq.

We chased al-Qaeda leader Osama bin-laden into Afghanistan, which is a wasteland of mountains and forbidding terrain. It is a hit-and- run war, not unlike the Vietnam experience; capturing territory yields little strategic or tactical advantage. The challenge includes a never ending identification puzzle of friend or foe.

Thus far, Maryland has lost 34 of its own in Afghanistan, five from Frederick and the immediate area.

Sgt. I.C. Lance Vogeler, Cub Scout, Eagle Scout, Iraq veteran, KIA in Afghanistan October 2010.

I was shocked to see the name, Sergeant First Class Lance Vogeler, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in October 2010. He also served long tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

I knew Lance as a Cub Scout interpreting for his hearing impaired mother at Pack meetings and a Tenderfoot in my Boy Scout Troop 799. He went on to earn his Eagle Scout Badge. That brings it home to me.

Consider, too, the death of a former Baltimore School Teacher. Lt. Col. Robert Marchanti II was a member of the Maryland Army National Guard and the 29th Division’s security detachment. He and an Air Force colleague died in February, assassinated by a Taliban operative while working at their desks in the Afghan Security Center.

The names of the wounded and killed in action from Frederick are carved into the World War II Monument in Memorial Park and throughout the nation. Korea? The names of those KIAs also are on that monument in the park. 

We built the Frederick County Vietnam Veterans Memorial, dedicating it April 30, 1995, 25 years to the day when the last Americans escaped off the roof of the U. S. Embassy in Saigon. There are 23 names on that monument, punctuated by their haunting images etched into the black South African granite obelisk.

Hand drawn image of Sr. MSgt Jamaes Caniford, which guided artist etching image on Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Family members had an emotional homecoming when they were privately allowed see their sons’ images.

Among the images is that of Air Force Sr. MSgt. James Kenneth Caniford of Middletown. We had him listed as missing in action March 29, 1972. Two years ago his remains were recovered and identified from the crash site of his C-130 gunship on the Cambodian border. The inscription has been changed.

I was seated beside a soldier on a United Airlines plane in 1973. He wore a new uniform; his sergeant stripes belied the circumstances and the haunting look in his eyes.

Unlike the young soldier I met at church, this soldier had been in the Vietnam jungle 48 hours earlier. He was airlifted from the jungle, processed through the replacement station with his hold baggage, given a new uniform and shoved on an aircraft. I met him as we flew to Atlanta, Ga., his DD 214 separation papers in hand.

Seated across from me was Maj. Gen. John Q. Henion, then commanding general of U. S. Army Recruiting Command. He didn’t hesitate to welcome this war veteran back to “the world.” General Henion understood the soldier’s situation; he was still alert for enemy ambush.

I suspect this young man returned home with little notice except from his loved ones. That is the way it was for us during the Vietnam War. We welcomed Bravo Company home to Frederick from Desert Storm in the spring of 1991. Citizens insisted they get off the bus and march down Market Street, its sidewalks full of well wishers. The Marines were overwhelmed.

Such an event had not occurred here since World War II.

Our young people have come home. We have remembered their service with honor guards. We displayed colors from bridges and fire apparatus; and American Legion Riders joined organized motorcycle clubs guarding motorcade routes and protecting families from those who would disrupt the solemnity of funeral services.

We honor our own who sacrificed their lives and recall that they were, as mentioned, one of my Boy Scouts; a young man perhaps destined to achieve success in the business world; who may have been one of the leaders of this Rotary Club; whose two children may provide leadership for our community and nation.

The memory of that Sunday dinner in Columbus, Ga., tells me I need to invite that Fort Detrick soldier for Sunday dinner soon. He is our responsibility.

May God keep our young warriors in his care and love. They are our children and our future.—©2012 Norman M. Covert

Mr. Covert may be contacted at nmcovert@thecovertletter.com.