Veterans gather as brothers to remember
June 4, 2010
By Don Kramer
JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - Every year we lose more.
Washington State Soldiers Home resident Bill Donald, a Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war, read 37 names Monday of fellow members of the Orting home who had passed away in the last year. The packed hall fell silent.
"It is important on Memorial Day to cherish the memories of our friends and family members who have died, to remember their contributions to making our lives better," said Washington Governor Christine O. Gregoire in her annual proclamation on the holiday designed to commemorate the sacrifices of so many U.S. military members. "The veterans who fought and died for our country helped preserve freedom and the right guaranteed to all citizens under the Constitution."
Soldiers from the 1st Battalion, 94th Field Artillery Regiment took charge of the 2010 Memorial Day program, arriving in a small fleet of vans and buses to escort many of the 173 residents from their rooms to the hall lined with bunting.
"Deep Steel Battalion" Soldiers pushed wheelchairs, made runs for punch and cake and listened to war stories of the appreciative veterans. Their experiences ranged from World War II through Desert Storm.
For Sgt. 1st Class Nesom Ocasio, a motor sergeant and the NCO-in-charge of the event, it was his third time visiting a veterans home on Memorial Day.
"I do like it," Ocasio said. "These veterans gave up a lot for our country. This is the least we can do. They want to be here. It's a good opportunity for them to talk to prior veterans."
Resident Leonard Lawless was on hand telling tales of flight school during World War II. He learned to fly "about everything there was," he said, only to be released from active duty in the wake of Victory over Japan Day, "two days before I would have been a lieutenant."
The only two veterans who stood during the Marine Hymn, brothers Walter and Merwyn McKee, reminisced about their service with the 1st Marine Air Wing and the 3rd Marine Tank Battalion. Walt is now a resident of the home, while his Vietnam veteran brother visits from Puyallup. Both are locals who graduated from Orting High School.
"I come out here all the time from Puyallup," Merwyn said. "We both liked being in the Marine Corps."
The formal program combined with interaction with the veterans made it a moving day for many of the JBLM Soldiers on hand.
"This is amazing," said Spc. Ashley Pollard of the 1-94 FA's Forward Support Battery. "I like the way they recognized the fallen Soldiers. I almost cried."
Pollard is starting her own military traditions. The first in her Austin, Texas, family to enlist, she is married to a Soldier who is deployed to Afghanistan and four months ago gave birth to their first child, Pollard recently re-enlisted for stabilization at JBLM.
The 1-94 FA commander, Lt. Col. Charles Chenoweth, learned the value of visiting veterans homes 10 years ago when he served at Fort Leavenworth. The commander of his operations group at the Battle Command Training Center took a group in 2000 to the local version of the Washington State Soldiers Home.
"Truthfully, I kicked and dug my heels in a little bit," Chenoweth recalled. "Hey, it was a day off. About 30 of us went out in our Class A's. I got (so much) out of it. It's the same thing here."
Chenoweth made it a point to go to the home each Veterans Day and Memorial Day since he took command of the battalion, and it has become one of the high points of his tour.
"There are 125, 150 Soldiers who learned from the experience," he said, "(things) they didn't previously know. Some of them are privates. What a great thing. Maybe they'll do similar things in future years. That's why it's (special)."
In his remarks as guest speaker, Chenoweth thanked the "20th Century" military members for their critical contributions to peace and national security.
"You have accomplished one of the greatest feats in history," he said. "It is you who defeated three of the most powerful and destructive enemies the world has ever seen, and you helped to spread freedom and prosperity around the globe."
Chenoweth thanked the veterans for fighting and defeating the Japanese and German militaries in World War II and the forces of global Communism afterward.
"You opposed regimes that were set on the violent oppression of millions," he said. "You have accomplished one of the greatest feats in history."
Don Kramer is a reporter with Joint Base Lewis-McChord's weekly newspaper, the Northwest Guardian.