Hundreds join in Memorial Day tribute

SFC Kory WeichThe new Northfield Area Veterans Memorial proved a fitting setting for a solemn ceremony this morning marking the service of veterans from Northfield and throughout the country.

Hundreds of people gathered on bleachers and chairs and spread through the grass, facing the morning sun as it rose behind the memorial, which features a bronze soldier flanked by stone tablets listing the names of his fallen comrades.

"It was just beautiful, very meaningful," said Barbara Knaak, whose husband, John Knaak, was a Korean War veteran who died last fall.

There were familiar songs and speeches, but the crowd rose to its feet when SFC Kory Weich, a veteran of the current war in Iraq, finished his remarks.  

"Great speech," said Jim Knowles, asking for a copy. Jim was one of many who came up to speak with Weich after the service. A Northfield native, Jim is a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Iraq about the same time as Kory. Jim, who was commander of a trauma hospital there, retired from the service and now has a private surgical practice in Ohio.

Editor's note: I can't do justice to Kory's words, so I've included them in their entirety at the end of this post.

The service illustrated Kory's points about the country's great losses and the need to honor those who served and died.

Women hung grapevine wreaths on two simple white crosses to mark each war and conflict, until the crosses were covered in vines and red poppies. Boy and Girl Scouts laid red carnations on a row of small headstones used to honor all the present and former military, including John Knaak, who died in the last year. Their young hands, touching the names of the dead, linked their future to a past they have yet to understand.

Finally, the living veterans scattered among the crowd stood, to the surprise and applause of those around them. Their very invisibility in the crowd before that moment drove home the lesson that we owe our freedom to those ordinary people among us who stood up when it counted.

My dad was a World War II veteran and I'm grateful to those who marked his grave today back in Indiana. I like to think that when the Northfield high school students sounded Taps today, his squad and all the others reunited in a place of peace heard the notes and knew they carried the thanks of a grateful nation.

Below is the full text of SFC Kory Weich's speech. You can download a copy here.

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Good morning Mayor, veterans and their families, distinguished guests, and citizens. Welcome to this beautiful Memorial Day ceremony. My name is SFC Kory Weich. I am a platoon sergeant with the 434th Chem Company baed out of Northfield, Red Wing and Roseville.

Actually one of my fellow soldiers who is a Vietnam and an Operation Iraqui Freedom veteran was supposed to be giving this speech today. He volunteered to give the speech and then realized his daughter was getting married this weekend in Iowa. He then aked me if I could give a speech. I told him that I would and then I realized that I am not very good at public speaking. By the time I realized that, it was too late, so bear with me.

First of all, I would like to thank all of you for coming to this ceremony. It goes to show that people still remember the true meaning of Memorial Day. You come here to honor our fallen comrades. Being here means you understand that on Memorial Day, we honor the ideas and values for which soldiers stood for and died defending.

I would like to talk a little about what Memorial Day means to me. Prior to 2005, I volunteered for color guard in parades, setting up chairs for ceremonies, and driving pageant winners around in convertibles. That one was probably the best detail. I knew it was my duty, because someone from the VFW, American Legion or the city asked our unit for volunteer. So I did. I never asked why, I just did it.

It wasn’t until this year when I realized I was missing the meaning of Memorial Day. In September of 2004 to Thanksgiving 2005 we drove pretty much non stop. Putting on over 4 million miles as a company. I do not remember Memorial Day last year, but I also do not remember any other holiday of 2005. Christmas and New Year’s are a blur and even my birthday is hazy.

I do remember the kids in Iraq begging for food and water. I remember the kids trying to sell you anything they could find. I remember the kids walking around in 120-degree temps with no shoes on their feet, waving and smiling as we drove by. I remember the Iraqui guards at checkpoints asking for food and water, wearing ski masks in 120-degree temperatures because they did not want their identities known, for fear that their family would be killed. I remember the capture of a leader that killed and tortured hundreds of thousands of his own people. I remember the blown up bridges and roads all over Iraq. I remember the fear of not knowing if the dead animal in the road is just that, or if it was a roadside bomb that was going to blow up when we drove by it. I remember giving an old herdsman and his grandson a couple of Pepsis and a half a pack of smokes and how happy he was. I remember the schools being built. I remember the irrigation systems put in place and water made available to Iraqis for the first time in their lives. I remember the civilians voting for their freedom. Most of all, I remember the soldiers that gave their life for our great nation’s safety and freedom to a country that had no idea what freedom was.

In that 12-month period we were on the ground, the United States military lost 715 soldiers. Every day before we left a base, I would gather the soldiers around and give a safety briefing. I would tell the soldiers about where the bad areas were, where the most current attacks took place, what the weather conditions were going to be, what route we were going to take and the very last thing we did before leaving was a prayer. There were times when you thought, this is it, we are not going to make it, but someone was always looking over us and brought everyone home safe.

Unfortunately, over our great nation’s history, not every platoon sergeant could say that. As of May 5, 2006, our nation has lost over 2,400 soldiers in the War on Terrorism. During Desert Shield/Desert Storm we lost over 1,900 soldiers. During Vietnam we lost over 90,000 soldiers. During the Korean War we lost over 54,000 soldiers. During WWII we lost over 405,000 soldiers. During WWI we lost over 116,000 soldiers and during the Civil War we lost almost 500,000 soldiers.

Now, I think back as a veteran, as a soldier, as a grateful nation, what I can do to remember those who have laid down their own lives to defend our nation’s freedom and to make freedom closer to those who have never had it. I started by looking up the history of Memorial Day. It was very interesting.

Memorial Day was started before the end of the Civil War by General John Logan, in his General Order No. 11 and was first officially observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and confederage soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michaels conceived the idea to wear red poppies. She also replied with her own poem. I would like to recite both poems.

In Flanders Fields
Lt. Colonel John McCrae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place: And in the sky
the larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead, short days ago,
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved,and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Moina Michael wrote the following:

We cherish too, the poppy red.
That grows on fields where valor led.
It seems to signal to the skies,
That blood of heroes never dies.

She was the first to wear one, and sold poppies to her friends and co-workers, with the money going to benefit servicemen in need. Later a Madam Guerin from France was visiting the United States and learned of this new custom started by Ms. Michael, and when she returned to France, made artificial red poppies to raise money for war orphaned children and widowed women. This tradition spread to other countries.

In 1921, the Franco-American Children’ League sold poppies nationally to benefit war orphans of France and Belgium. The league disbanded a year later and Madam Guerin approached the VFW a year later for help. Shortly before Memorial Day 1922, the VFW became the first veterans’ organization to nationally sell poppies made by disabled veterans. In my research, I found that traditional observation of Memorial Day has diminished.

For decades, Memorial Day was a day when stores closed and communities gathered together for a day of parades and other celebrations with a patriotic theme. Now, some people think the day is for honoring any and all dead, not just those fallen in service to our country, or they just look at Memorial Day as a three-day weekend and the first day of summer. There are exceptions though, like this ceremony and other ceremonies throughout the United States.

Here are just a few other ways people have been observing Memorial Day: Since the late 1950s, on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the 1,200 soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington Cemetery. They then patrol 24 hours a day during the weekend to ensure that each flag remains standing. In 1951 the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis began placing flags on the 150,000 graves at Jefferson Barrack National Cemetery as an annual good turn. In 1998 on the Saturday before Memorial Day, the Boys Scout and Girls Scouts place candles at each of approximately 15,300 gravesites of sosldiers buried in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. And in 2004, Washington, D.C., held its first Memorial Day parade in over 60 years.

To help re-educate and remind Americans of the true meaning of Memorial Day, the National Moment of Remembrance resolution was passed on December 2000. This resolution asks that at 3 p.m. local time, for all Americans “to voluntarily and informally observe in their own way a moment of remembrance and respect, pausing from whatever they are doing for a moment of silence for listening to Taps."

So whether you visit cemeteries and place flags on graves of fallen soldiers, visit a memorial like this one, fly your U.S. flag at half-staff until noon, participate in the National Moment of Remembrance, or renew a pledge to aid the widows, widowers, and orphans of our fallen dead and aid to the disabled veterans, remember: It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial. And it is the soldier, who salutes the flag, who serves the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protesters to burn the flag.

Army Sgt. Michael Evans of Louisiana wrote a farewell letter that was to be opened only in the event he did not come home. He was killed on patrol in Western Baghdad. The 22-year-old wrote, “My death will mean nothing if you stop now. I know it will be hard, but I gave my life so you could live. Not just live, but live free.”

We in this great country owe a great debt of gratitude to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could live free. We can start repaying that debt by not forgetting, by remembering what they did and what they stood for. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak today and remember, the freedom that everyone enjoys today was given to us by the blood and sacrifice of those that we honor on this Memorial Day.

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