No greater sacrifice can be made than to go to war on behalf of freedom. Veterans of the Armed Forces of the United States understand this concept as average citizens cannot. A non-military person cannot truly imagine what warfare is like. No film can accurately portray a wartime scenario because quite simply, the elements of adrenaline, emotion, self-preservation and self-sacrifice cannot be envisioned by anyone who has not shared the experience of warfare. Veterans share a bond unlike any other, and when that special day or moment that can never be forgotten rises out of the past, veterans look to each other for support and to their communities for understanding. For members of the unique group that have sometimes given the ultimate sacrifice of their very lives, there is a tradition in America that began long ago.
According to Professor David Blight, of the Yale University History Department, the first Memorial Day was observed in the 1860s by a group of liberated slaves near Charleston, S.C. The site was a former Confederate prison camp and a mass grave for the Union soldiers that died there. After the Civil War, the newly freed slaves exhumed the fallen soldiers, made individual graves, built a fence around the new cemetery and marked the hallowed ground as a Union graveyard. This was an incredibly daring deed for the former slaves so shortly after the Confederate defeat. The freed slaves then returned on May 30, 1868, with flowers to decorate the grave sites and created the first Decoration Day, which later would become Memorial Day.
Asking several Marco Islanders for their opinions about a war memorial at the new Veterans Community Park on Marco, there were many heartfelt comments and stories about this very personal issue.
“I believe there should be a memorial,” answered Rick Leach, a six-year Navy veteran. “I was never in combat, but I believe there should be a memorial to honor everyone that served.”
“I don’t know if there should be or not,” replied Brandon McKinney a former Navy specialist. “For me, I didn’t serve so I would get anything; I just wanted to serve my country.”
When Chris Quinton decided to serve his country, he went to the Naples Army recruiting office in the quiet summer of 2001. It was June, well before 9/11; but after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorists attacks, the Army came to his Marco home the day after 9/11. Quinton had no idea that about one year later, he would be pinned down in a firefight with nowhere to go in the middle of a street in Baghdad, Iraq.
“We were on a routine nighttime mission to capture insurgents,” Quinton recalled. “Every night before we went out on a mission we were given the names of possible ‘bad guys.’ My job,” Quinton smiled with the thought, “was to kick in the door of the bad guys’ address. I would kick in the door for my team and go in first — and we were in in seconds— but we all knew that every household in Iraq was allowed to have one AK-47 fully automatic assault weapon. That was a scary thought, knowing that the house you were breaking into had at least one machine gun.
“One night — and this was usual — we blocked off both ends of the street of the bad guys’ address with armored vehicles. We had a checkpoint at both ends and did not allow civilian traffic to pass, because of possible car bombs and suicide attacks. Everything was going according to plan until we heard a shout, and then the racing engine of a car breaking through the checkpoint. Once everyone saw the car was a threat we all opened up with our weapons, but then, everyone on both sides of the street in the apartment buildings opened up on us from the roof tops. We were set up, and suddenly everyone knew it. We tried to return fire, but we were just pinned down and overwhelmed. I remember being in the middle of the street with no cover, with tracer rounds flying everywhere and thinking. ‘This is it.’ Then, suddenly, an armored vehicle roared up, a door popped open, and I was behind the armor and safe. That’s how it is, and as far as a war memorial is concerned on Marco, I believe there should be one. Just to remind everyone that freedom is not free, and moments like that night in Baghdad should not be forgotten.”
When asked about a war memorial at Veterans Park, Tom Erickson, a winter resident of Marco, responded, “Anything that honors veterans is great. Something that recognizes the Marco men and women who serve their country.”
Donna Niemczyk replied, “I think we should always honor our veterans. Yes, there should be a memorial.”
Renate Koeplin answered, “I think yes, there should be a war memorial. Yes, Veterans Park must have a memorial.”
As a former second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Glenn Walton agrees. “I believe there should be something to honor every branch of the military. I would like to see a memorial for all the services: the Army, Marines, Air Force, Navy, and Coast Guard.”
When Marco Islander Phil Ridge turned 21 in November 1970, it was in the jungles of South Vietnam. Many years have passed, but every Christmas Eve, Ridge remembers the day, the hour and the moment that he almost didn’t come home.
“We were about 10 miles out from the fire support base in Chu Lai,” explains Ridge who will never forget that, “It was Christmas Eve and we were headed back to the base for a hot Christmas dinner. The jungle was thick, it was hot and steamy, and my good friend, Mike, was walking point. The point man always walked first and looked down to check for mines. I was walking directly behind Mike and looking up for any trouble along the trail. I remember hearing ‘the click,’ and suddenly, everything went into slow motion. Mike looked back over his shoulder, just for a second, as if to say ‘I’m sorry’ and then I felt this great heat-wave wind — almost like someone pulled a giant tree branch back and hit me with it. The next thing I know I was asking ‘Where is the bird?’ meaning where is the medevac helicopter? Later, I was told, I stopped breathing twice but was given mouth-to-mouth by the medic before the helicopter came.
“I spent three weeks in the hospital in Da Nang, then after surgery on both legs, stomach and heart, I was airlifted to Japan for two weeks in a hospital there and then to Valley Forge hospital until I was released. The army kept me in for another year, mainly just to keep an eye on my progress.
“I never will forget, I stopped breathing twice before the helicopter came, so every day after that has been like gravy. After that Christmas Eve in Vietnam, every day is easy, just a piece of cake. As far as a war memorial is concerned, I always encourage anything to make people aware. If they are going to name the new property Veterans Park, why not have something to remember the veterans. Something to make people think about the sacrifice and the time of risking their lives for their country.”
When city councilman Rob Popoff was asked about the proposed memorial, he penned the following comments.
“The citizens of our community overwhelmingly voted to acquire the property now known as Veterans Community Park. As such, we must honor our veterans with an appropriate monument to show our respect and gratitude for the selfless sacrifice given to our great nation.”
When Abraham Lincoln learned that a single mother had lost all five of her sons on a single battlefield during the Civil War, he penned the following letter.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
Dear Madam, I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the adjutant general of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,