During most years, more than 100 patients die at the 300-bed Thomson Hood Veterans’ Center. Every year, a Memorial Day service is conducted in the multipurpose room for those veterans. The administrator, chaplains and recreation staff give up an off-duty Sunday to lead a patriotic, spiritual ceremony honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. In 2004-2005, 79 veterans finished their last campaign at the Wilmore, Kentucky battleground (http://thvc.ky.gov/).
Before visiting Dad on Memorial Day in 2005, who was then in the last stages of Alzheimer’s disease, I attended the solemn service hallowing the names of departed comrades, followed by an inspirational Memorial Day speech from a retired Navy chaplain.
When I enter the room, I see the wooden cross on stage as always. A piano also is there this morning. Rene, a hospital volunteer, delicately plays both patriotic and spiritual melodies. In front of the stage is a narrow table, covered by a white linen cloth. On the table are five elegant, white candles in golden holders. Sixty or 70 veterans are gathered, most in wheelchairs, and some are accompanied by family members. Seated in the front row are three young men in U.S. Army fatigues. Next to the men is a silver-haired gentleman in a U.S. Navy officer’s uniform with Captain’s insignia. Standing proudly behind the old veterans are four teenagers in pressed blue uniforms and polished silver helmets—three young men and one young woman. One holds the U.S. flag, one the Kentucky state flag and two stand at parade rest with gleaming rifles. Hospital staff roam around the room and talk with the veterans.
Fran, the facility administrator, begins the service at 10 a.m. She reviews the history of Memorial Day and thanks the veterans for their service.
“Memorial Day started during the Civil War, and it is a day to remember those who died defending our country,” she says. “It was originally called Decoration Day because families decorated the graves of loved ones who fell in battle. Today we honor those men and women who have fallen from among us in the past year. Today we also honor and thank you for your service to our nation. May God bless you and keep you.”
Next, Chaplain Gabe prays the invocation.
“Father, we thank you for this Memorial Day as we remember and honor those who died to provide us with the freedoms of this great country. We pray for blessings upon our nation, we pray your blessing upon those who are in combat theaters this very moment. We pray your blessings upon them to protect them and keep them safe. Father, for those who are here and have given so much to protect the freedom of our nation, we thank you for them and we praise you for them. Now we ask these things in your name, Amen.”
Following the prayer, Fran introduces the Bryan Station High School Junior Air Force R.O.T.C. color guard. The color guard leader gives a barely audible command, and the four march silently and gracefully to the stage. A few more whispered orders and they elegantly wheel the formation and place the flags perfectly on the raised platform. The room is hushed as the veterans gaze at this fruit of their service, a young and free generation dignifying the symbol of liberty that the old soldiers swore to protect and defend.
The hospital chaplains explain the significance of the five candles: each candle represents a unit in Thomson Hood Veterans’ Center, and each is given flame to remember those gone from Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and Eisenhower, the unit caring for my father. I remember Percy, Jack, Clay, Bob and Wes and wonder who will be gone next Memorial Day.
Gabe introduces our guest speaker, the man in the Navy uniform, a retired Navy chaplain. Dean and Gabe are friends, and Dean is a favorite of the veterans. Still impressive in his deep blue uniform, Dean stands in front of the candle-lit table and smiles as he began his stirring speech.
“It’s an honor to be here, and I greet each one of you—veterans, staff, administration, friends, family members and especially our young chaplains who are getting ready to go off to chaplaincy school.
“I want to talk with you about Memorial Day today. My earliest memories center on the kitchen table where my mother made crepe paper flowers. On Memorial Day, we would take them out to the cemetery, she would lay them on the graves of all the family members who had died and then she would tell us something about each of them. Although I didn’t understand the origin of Memorial Day itself, I came to realize through my mother that we offered reverence to those who had died so we could live free. We owe them this honor.
“I want to talk with you about that today. I want to use one scripture—it’s from Luke, Chapter 12, verse 48, and it’s the words of our Lord when he said, ‘To whom much is given, much will be required.’ Keep that in your mind as we go through our talk this morning.
“Following the Civil War, people were weary and exhausted. The war exacted a terrible price, and most survivors only wanted to forget the suffering. So, the graves of veterans were neglected. They were left to be covered with grass, briars and brush. One day a group of ladies noticed some abandoned graves, and they realized what those men had done for liberty. These women organized, and they cleaned the graves and decorated them with flowers. The concept spread across the nation, and in 1868, General John A. Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, issued General Order Number 11. That Order said on the 30th day of May in the years to follow, people should honor the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers. That was the beginning of our Memorial Day, and that’s why we are gathered here today.
“I want to talk with you about liberty and what it meant for people to die for our liberty. Daniel Webster said, ‘God grants liberty only to those who love it, and are always ready to guard and defend it.’ Remember those words, ‘God grants liberty.’ God gives liberty to people who love Him. He gives liberty to those who are willing to guard and defend it. Our founding fathers thought liberty was a gift from God, and it deserved our fullest sacrifice to maintain it.
“John F. Kennedy, on his inaugural address, stood on the steps of our country’s capital on a cold January day and spoke plainly to Communism. It was advancing across the world and was at our very gate. This young, untried president stood up, looked evil straight in the face, and announced, ‘Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend and oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’
“That was a great thing that he said. But he said it for us all, and we have to say it again, with every generation. We have to take those words and make them our own if we’re going to maintain liberty in our time, and pass liberty on to our children and our grandchildren. President Kennedy ended his inaugural address by saying, ‘On earth God's work must truly be our own.’ What is God’s work in the world? It is that we should enjoy freedom and liberty.
“Those were great words that President Kennedy spoke. What do they mean for us today, when we say, ‘I’ll pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend and oppose any foe, to assure the success of liberty?’ What does that mean to you? What does that mean to me?
“I think I know what it means to you because you’re veterans. And, I know how you think, and I know how I think about things. Well, let me just refresh in our minds again what it means.
“Let’s remember Normandy. Before the invasion, General Eisenhower wrote a personal letter to every soldier, sailor and airman and had copies placed into their hands. The letter said in part, ‘Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Corps, you are about to embark on the Great Crusade. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle.’ General Eisenhower closed by saying, ‘Let us beseech the blessings of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.’ And then they made their advances and thousands of soldiers died. Several days later, a picture was taken a few miles from the beach. The picture is of a French peasant farmer and his wife, dressed in their coarse farm clothes. The farmer is kneeling over a dead American soldier. His wife stands there in her long dark dress. You know what they’d done? They picked flowers from their garden, and they placed those flowers on the dead American soldier who was shot in front of their farmhouse. It is a touching photograph. It was a man and woman whose name we’ll never know. They kneeled there in tenderness and love and reverence for a young American soldier who died for their liberty. As if to say, we don’t know what your name is young man, but you are some mother’s son. And we just want to say we appreciate what you have done for our liberty.
“I tell you, liberty is not free, is it? Liberty costs us something, and every generation has to pay their price. What does it mean to bear every burden, pay every cost? What does it mean? I tell you, it means many different things. Our men and women coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan–if you’ve been watching the news, you know. Many of them, they come home without arms, without a leg. Some of their faces are so badly burned that they are unrecognizable. These young men and women are coming back to us, and I tell you, they have born every burden, they have paid every price, and they have opposed the foe so we could have liberties. And so as we close today, I want to encourage you to take care of what you can for liberty.
“Let me tell you some things you can do for liberty to help bear the burden, pay the cost, oppose the foe and support our friends. Here are some things you can do: Pray daily to God and give Him thanks for the liberty He’s given to us. We can do that. Every day when you get up, say, ‘Lord I thank you for the liberty you have given me and this great nation.’ The next thing we can do is to live lives of liberty—virtuous lives, good lives, righteous lives. You know, liberty in itself is not virtuous, not necessarily. If people in liberty do not have virtue, if they do not have morality, then liberty degenerates into something else, a thing not honoring liberty at all. See? Liberty has to be born by virtue in order for liberty to give us what we want. We ought to teach liberty. We need to teach it to our children and to our grandchildren and to our great grandchildren. Some of you who are at that age now, you can’t go somewhere and maybe speak before a crowd, but you can speak to your children, your grand children, your great grandchildren. Tell them about liberty; tell them how important it is that we preserve it, and that we pay any price for it.
“The last thing we can do is remember. Remembering is the most powerful thing God places within the heart of every one of us. We can remember those who have died for our liberties, and how important it is to be free. We can remember those young men and women fighting for us today.
“We can’t give up. Our nation is being tested today. It’s being tested to see if we will defend our liberty. It’s being tested to see if we truly love liberty like we say we love liberty. It has been said, ‘a nation may lose its liberties in a day and not miss them in a century.’ So my friends, guard liberty. Thank you for what you have done to protect our liberty. God bless you. The Lord be with us all. Amen.”
* * *
Chaplain Dean’s rousing remarks are met with vigorous applause and a few tears. Those of us who are able give him a standing ovation. Many in wheelchairs bare the scars of their sacrifices for our freedom. One had no legs and another had lost an arm.
The names of the 79 deceased veterans are read, and we pray for their families and those veterans who remain behind. Rene creates appropriate refrains on the piano as we quietly leave the ceremony.
As I walk through the sun-lit hardwood hallways, I think of the soldiers who struggle in the Eisenhower unit. Fading away in the grips of dementia, they suffer in obscurity and isolation, a complete loss of liberty and freedom. They deserve the same respect and honor as those who still can don a uniform and march in Veteran’s Day parades or participate in television interviews. God help us if we ignore them because of their infirmity.
My father passed away from Alzheimer's disease complications on May 15, 2006. I've written an e-book about our experiences in the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center ward for dementia patients, the Eisenhower Unit. "Fading Away at Wilmore" is available for free download, and the accompanying documentary I filmed about several of the book's veterans, "They Are Still There," can be viewed also, at www.crossandflagproductions.com. Please remember this Memorial Day. The photos below were taken at Thomson-Hood.