Comrades, Loved Ones Provide Reminders of Memorial Day’s Meaning
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 23, 2008 To many Americans, Memorial Day means a day off from work with parades, pool openings and barbecues. But for those who have lost a comrade or loved one in combat, the day takes on a whole new significance. Here are some of their stories.
A mass grave marker at Arlington National Cemetery honors the 12 soldiers killed when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was shot down near Baghdad on Jan. 20, 2007. Courtesy photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Army 1st Lt. Brent Pounders
Army 1st Lt. Brent Pounders remembers his childhood, reading textbooks about patriots who sacrificed their lives through the country’s history and thinking of Memorial Day as the end of the school year.
“You think about it, but [its meaning] really doesn’t hit home or register as much until you lose some of your dear friends and realize that their families are affected by this and what it actually signifies,” he said.
For Pounders, that significance hit home Jan. 20, 2007.
Twelve soldiers died that day when their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter was shot down east of Baghdad. Among them were three members of Pounders’ unit, the Arkansas Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 185th Aviation Regiment, 77th Aviation Brigade, as well as a Texas National Guard soldier who worked closely with them on a day-to-day basis.
Pounds remembers Maj. Michael Taylor, the company commander, for his great sense of humor as he looked out for the best for his unit and held every soldier to the highest standard.
First Sgt. John Brown, the company standardization instructor, was “one of those guys who always had a smile on his face, was always in a good mood and always willing to do anything he could to help.”
Sgt. Maj. William Warren had a funny habit of adding “and everything” to just about everything he said, prompting the unit to yell out the catch-line in unison just as Warren finished taping a video to send home from Iraq.
Capt. Sean Lyerly wasn’t assigned to the unit, but quickly bonded with the Arkansas Guardsmen he worked with in the theater at Company C, 1st Brigade, 131st Aviation Regiment. “He was a really good guy who got along with everybody in the company,” Pounds recalls. “Everybody liked him, and he did a good job for us.”
Pounders said the first Memorial Day spent back at home, away from the heavy operational demands of the combat zone, will give him a lot more time to reflect on what he and his unit have lost.
“In the past, I’ve had some people I knew who had been killed in Iraq, but this time there’s a more personal aspect to it,” he said. “This time it is people I knew and was good friends with and have known for years giving their lives for their country.”
The unit still is recovering from their deaths, but Pounders said it is the families who have lost the most. “They are the ones who have to live on without their fathers or their husbands or their sons,” he said.
Pounders said it’s fitting that the American people recognize the sacrifices they and their fellow servicemembers have made. “These people all gave so much,” he said. “The least we can do is set one day aside out of the year and stop our busy schedules and just show some remembrance for them and what they gave and what their families gave. I think that’s the very least we can do as a nation.”
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Rafael Barney
As they were deploying to Iraq from March Air Force Base, Calif., Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Rafael Barney formed a fast friendship with Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Jimmy Arroyave.
Barney, a religious program specialist, and Arroyave, a member of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force’s 1st Force Service Support Group, shared common roots in Colombia. They spent the entire trip to Kuwait swapping stories and experiences, quickly bonding and promising to stay in touch.
It wasn’t until two months later, when he was in Fallujah, Iraq, with the Marine Corps’ 7th Engineer Support Battalion in April 2004, that Barney would again hear his new friend’s name. Arroyave, he learned, had been killed when his Humvee rolled over during a mission northeast of Ramadi.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard his name,” Barney said. “I froze. He was my friend.”
Barney took the news to heart. After he returned from Iraq, he contacted Arroyave’s widow, Rachael, and went to meet her, her two daughters, and the newborn son his fallen Marine friend wound never lay eyes on.
This week, Barney, now assigned to the chief of naval chaplains office in Washington, visited the Marine Corps Museum near Quantico, Va., where a memorial brick honors Arroyave. “It was touching,” he said. “I wanted to go see it.”
Now that a loss has touched him in a very personal way, Barney said, Memorial Day has taken on a new level of importance. “It’s not just a weekend off any more,” he said. “You reflect on your experiences, and it becomes personal.”
Barney called Memorial Day a time for Americans to recognize the contributions their military has made, often at great cost. “This military has been through a lot of pain and a lot of losses,” he said.
“[Americans] need to be reminded of the sacrifices their fellow citizens are taking,” Barney continued. “And they need to understand the value of military service to this country, and the reason we are here.”
Wesley and Peggy Bushnell
Parents of Army Sgt. William Bushnell
Just over a year after losing their 24-year-old son in Iraq, Wesley and Peggy Bushnell plan a weekend of activity honoring his memory.
Army Sgt. William Bushnell, a soldier with 1st Cavalry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, died in combat April 21, 2007, when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle during operations in Baghdad. He was among 31 “Long Knife” Brigade Combat Team soldiers killed during the unit’s 15-month deployment to Iraq.
The Bushnells joined their son’s comrades when, after they returned to El Paso, Texas, the city hosted a Texas-size hometown heroes’ parade in February. Wesley walked the parade route alongside one of 31 riderless horses with empty boots reversed in the stirrups that commemorated his son and the other fallen soldiers.
This weekend, the Bushnells will again pay public tribute to the son they grieve for every day in private. They and fellow church members in Jasper, Ark., will board a bus bound for Indian Village, La., where their son is buried in a family grave.
They plan a weekend of worship, music and fellowship remembering their son and what he stood for.
Memorial Day has always had special meaning to the Bushnells, a patriotic family that always took time to pause and “remember the people who gave their all,” Wesley said.
“It’s an important day, because it honors the people who fought for what they believe in and gave us the opportunity to be sitting here watching color TV,” he said.
But since their son’s death, Memorial Day has become deeply personal, he said. He and his wife reflect all the time on what they’ve lost -- Wesley, during long days on the road driving a truck for Wal-Mart, a dog tag with his son’s photo around his neck, and Becky, as she painstakingly toils over the memorial quilts she sews.
If there’s any consolation in their loss, Wesley said, it’s that their son died for a noble cause. “He went with dignity and honor. That’s what makes it tolerable to me,” he said. “I can accept war, and I know that bad things happen in war. It hurts, but I can accept it.”
Carolyn and Keith Maupin
Parents of Army Staff Sgt. Keith Matthew Maupin
For the past four Memorial Days, Carolyn and Keith Maupin of Batavia, Ohio, didn’t know if their Army Reserve son was dead or alive.
Army Pfc. Keith Matthew Maupin was among two soldiers and seven contract employees reported missing after insurgents attacked their fuel convoy west of Baghdad on April 9, 2004. Maupin was later reported as the only missing soldier.
A videotape that aired two weeks later on Al Jazeera TV showed him being held captive by masked gunmen, raising hopes he was still alive. Al Jazeera reported two months later that Maupin had been killed, but the U.S. Army ruled the video of the execution too poor to conclusively identify Maupin.
The Maupin family waited for four years, never giving up hope that Matt was still alive. Only when the Army announced March 20, 2008, that it had found and identified his remains using DNA did the Maupins finally know his fate.
The city of Cincinnati heralded its fallen son, hosting a memorial ceremony in late April at Great American Ballpark, home of the Cincinnati Reds. Pallbearers from Maupin’s unit carried his flag-draped casket, placing it on the pitchers’ mound before the 25,000 mourners. Later that day, Maupin was buried in Cincinnati’s Gate of Heaven Cemetery.
U.S. Army Reserve Command honored Maupin during a May 22 memorial service at its headquarters at Fort McPherson, Ga. Carolyn called the service “quite touching,” knowing that more than 200 soldiers were honoring her son. “We know they are not going to forget, don’t we?” she said.
The Maupins will spend this Memorial Day weekend as they have the last three, riding on the back of a motorcycle down Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue as part of “Rolling Thunder.” The annual ride, now in its 21st year, helps raise awareness about prisoners of war, troops missing in action and veterans’ benefits. It also offers veterans the chance to reconnect with their brothers-in-arms.
Carolyn said she’s always honored Memorial Day as a time to remember the fallen. She remembers years past, watching Memorial Day parades on television. “What was different then was that Matt was with us, and now he is not,” she said. “So the emotions are different. We miss him.”
As they remember their fallen son and honor another son serving in the military, Marine Sgt. Micah Maupin, the Maupins said it’s important for all Americans to recognize the significance of Memorial Day.
“That’s who gives them what they are able to do every day -- those guys who have died and those guys who have served,” Keith said. “To me it means freedom, and what they have sacrificed to give us our freedom each and every day,” Carolyn echoed.
Air Force Maj. Frances Robertson
While others attend Memorial Day commemorations in the coming days, Air Force Maj. Frances Robertson plans to stay away, saying they still bring up too many painful memories.
The Air Force flight nurse remembers growing up in San Antonio and enjoying the ceremony and celebration that surrounded Memorial Day. “When you were a kid, it was all about backyard barbecues and seeing the little flags on the funeral grounds at Fort Sam Houston,” she said. “The music was always great, and the gunfire was really neat.”
But after two combat deployments with the Air Force Reserve’s 433rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, including one to Iraq at the start of the war, Robertson sees military cemeteries and wonders if she treated any of those buried there. She doesn’t like hearing gunfire. She feels she’s seen too much death to bring herself to attend Memorial Day ceremonies.
“It’s not the memorial service I don’t like, it’s the memories,” she said. “When you go to these functions, it brings it all back. You are reminded of it all over again.”
Robertson said she holds dear memories of the servicemembers she treated in both Iraq and Kuwait and calls them heroes who willingly put themselves on the line for their fellow Americans.
“Any time a military member goes out, they don’t know if they are coming home, and their families don’t know if they are coming home,” she said. “But they went out anyway, with their mind on the mission.”
Robertson calls these troops minorities within American society, “the small group of people who volunteered to go in [to the military] and protect the U.S. for everyone else.”
“They’re the ones who take on that weight so others can live without worries,” she said.
While she avoids ceremonies herself, Robertson said, it’s important that all Americans pause on Memorial Day to recognize those who have sacrificed, particularly those who paid the ultimate price.
“I believe it is important to remember, because if you don’t remember, you devalue what happened,” she said.
“Many people in this country get to live with no worries and with many privileges and never had to battle for them or wage any kind of war for them,” she continued. “They need to say thanks and let these people know they appreciate all that they have sacrificed for them.”