By Michelle SchneiderOctober 10, 2019
The U.S. Military Academy Class of 2004 West Point graduates began their 15-year reunion with a memorial service for departed classmates at Cullum Hall on Friday. Of the 19 classmates, 12 gave their lives in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Over 140 graduates and surviving family members attended the service to remember their lives and the contributions they made.
"Our class was hit the hardest in the Global War on Terrorism and we lost the most since the class from Vietnam. So, I think it is always important for us to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice," USMA Class President of 2004 Mike Nemeth said.
The room was filled with smiling faces and laughter as classmates rekindled with old friends before the ceremony started. Following a series of commemoration speeches, scripture reading, roll call and taps, a somber moment of silence took place.
This memorial service was different from anything Cullum Hall has seen. A special guest was announced just before he took a seat at the grand piano in the room. Elham Fanous, a 22-year old pianist from Afghanistan, played a tribute song specially written for the graduates and their fallen classmates.
"When we were planning our reunion, which includes a memorial service for our classmates, we started thinking about how we can make it a more powerful and meaningful experience to honor them," Nemeth said.
Inviting a guest from a country where many West Point graduates died to protect and defend freedom was a symbolic tribute to the fallen. Music was illegal in Afghanistan and Fanous could have been killed if he was caught playing the piano in his basement, but because of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, people are able to live a life they love.
"He grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban and his family were musicians, so pursuing this life was incomprehensible," Nemeth said. "As things turned out, he was fortunate, talented and brilliant enough to pursue music in the United States. He said he wanted to thank anyone who served in the military for allowing him the ability to pursue a music career."
Recently featured on NBC News and in the Military Times, Fanous talked about how grateful he is for the veterans who gave their lives. He said he is able to pursue a music career because of servicemembers' suffering and sacrifices, which is something that was unimaginable as a child.
All of this was expressed in a letter Fanous called, 'To U.S. troops who served in Afghanistan: Thank you' and he shared a meaningful quote in the body of it.
U.S. Founding Father John Adams once wrote, "I must study politics and war that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain."
Fanous believes he is the generation of children described by John Adams and acknowledged those who studied war died so that people like him and his schoolmates are able to study music.
The memorial service ended after the 2004 graduates recited the West Point Alma Mater. Fanous took a moment to express his appreciation for being invited to West Point and played the piano for veterans who lost their lives fighting the war on terror.
"They died guarding us to make sure that we are safe and can become what we love. I appreciate that so much. Being here is very meaningful for me, and my letter was written to convey the feelings I feel and the fact that although they suffered and died in my country, I want to share how grateful I am for their service," Fanous said.