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Keeping faith on Memorial Day

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- My earliest memories go back to the mid-1930s when while shopping downtown with my mother, I would see men in store entrances holding out canisters to accept coins and affix paper flowers to the shopper's collars.

I later learned from my mom that these men were World War I veterans collecting money for their disabled brethren by selling red poppies. Later I was able to relate to the significance of the poppy from the poem they taught us in school, "In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row"* Every year at school we were given a 4 by 6 inch American flag, then with 48 stars, which we were to put on a soldiers grave on what was then Decoration Day, now Memorial Day.

The early 1940s brought me a true awareness of Memorial Day when my uncles and cousins marched off into harm's way to meet the axis powers of World War II. We listened to the radio and read the newspapers for casualty reports after the large campaigns on those strange named islands in the Pacific, on the shores of Normandy, and the skies over Ploesti, hoping our guys were safe. Gold stars replaced the blue ones on the window flags throughout the neighborhood. Fortunately for us, none were ours. Victory brought the ascendancy of veteran groups, large scale parades and deserved honors for the fallen.

The realities of war struck me broadside in 1950 when my friend Eddy, who shared the adventures of youth with me, and was a year ahead of me at school, joined the marines and was shortly struck down at the Chosin Reservoir. His memorial service had a lifelong impact on me. By the mid-50s, I was commissioned and off to learn to fly airplanes. I was subsequently sent to Europe to patrol the periphery of the "Iron Curtain" during the Cold War. Aircraft and crew loses were not uncommon to this duty. During that assignment I had the opportunity to visit memorials and cemeteries of World War II in France and Belgium. This is an image that will forever be frozen in my mind. The "crosses, row on row" had a new meaning for me.

In May 1967, I graduated from law school. Instead of wearing the traditional cap and gown on commencement day, I wore a helmet, survival vest and parachute for I was to fly my 21st mission over North Viet Nam. With this assignment to the 355th Tactical Fighter Wing came the daily watch of how many aircraft departed and returned.

One day in November as I stood at the side of the runway, I watched a returning aircraft in trouble attempt a landing. It struck the ground short of the threshold and was consumed by flame. We lost four crewmembers that day including my roommate, Nick. As his summary officer, I took care of his affairs, packed, and shipped his belongings to his family. Of course no Memorial Day goes by without me having thoughts of Nick and what he and I lost that day. "We loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields."

Today, 25 years after Air Force retirement, I find myself back with the Air Force. I am supporting the troops as a volunteer at the Patrick AFB SJA Office doing legal assistance work and anything else I can do to take up the slack left by those deployed to the Middle East. I pray that unlike in my war, after the present conflict, the returning veterans are honored as they richly deserve in life and death by a grateful nation. My thoughts return to the poem, "If ye break faith with us who die we shall not sleep, though poppies grow in Flanders fields." 

*Poem by John McCrae, "In Flanders Fields."