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Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI, Tristan Spinski/Naples Daily News // Buy this photo
Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo
We talk about "celebrating" Memorial Day, but what we are really celebrating is the service and valor of those who gave their lives fighting for this country in the Armed Forces. We are remembering, honoring, and yes, memorializing them.
Unlike Veterans' Day in November, the "guests of honor," those whose service is commemorated on Memorial Day, cannot be present to hear the speeches and receive the thanks. But we can talk to those they left behind, the mothers, fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters or sons and daughters they left behind when they went off to fight, or the buddies who were there with them when they met their end.
If they care to talk, that is. For some, memories of their wartime service, and their comrades who did not return, are not something they choose to share.
Vietnam War veteran Raul Bermudez of Naples served in the Army. He was "in country" in Vietnam from 1969 to 1971. Bermudez, wearing a leather vest, came out with his motorcycle and his friend Iris Sesma to participate in the Freedom Ride on Sunday, May 20, a bike run to support fallen soldiers and raise funds for Fisher House, which provides a place to stay for the families of wounded veterans while they undergo treatment and rehab.
"Definitely, yes," said Bermudez. "I lost friends in 'Nam, but I don't I talk about it. I keep it here," he said, thumping his chest with his fist.
Don Snyder, another Vietnam vet who is quartermaster of VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) Post 7369, is another who keeps his memories private.
"I had buddies killed there, but it's something I never discuss," he said. "We just buried everything. When we came back, nobody would acknowledge us. You didn't want to let anyone know you had been in Vietnam," he said.
Retired Army Colonel Nick Hale of Naples, who stormed onto Omaha Beach in the first wave of the D-Day assault on June 6, 1944 as a PFC, and went on to fight in the Battle of the Bulge and participate in the Nuremburg trials of Nazi war criminals, remembered comrades who died, but wanted to talk about one who virtually came back to life.
"Franklin Johnson was wounded, cut off from the rest of us" at the Battle of the Bulge, "and we were forced to retreat," said Hale. "He was reported dead to the War Dept., and they notified his parents. It turned out he was operated on by a German surgeon, without anaesthesia, and turned up alive at the end of the war in a POW camp. He got to call home and tell his mother he wasn't really dead." Johnson, said Hale, became a doctor and lived in Naples for many years.
For all those did die, we will never know what lives they might have lived, what contributions they might have made to the world. And for those closest to them, the pain never truly goes away.
One who died was Bob Crews, killed in Vietnam on May 22, 1968, aged 21. His mother, Carlynn "Polly" Crews, has lived in Naples for many years, and Memorial Day is still difficult for her.
"My daughter and her husband are coming down from Tallahassee to be with me, and my granddaughter is flying in from Texas," said Polly Crews. "I remember Bob with sorrow, but with a lot of pride, too. He told us before he went to Vietnam that he would rather go than his friends who were married and had children.
"He didn't want to kill anyone," she recalled. "But he loved helicopters, so he volunteered for search and rescue." Returning from picking up the remains of fallen comrades, his patrol walked a booby-trapped path, she said.
"I did not handle it well when we lost our son," she said. "I was asked many times to lay a wreath, and I wouldn't do it, not until they honored the Vietnam veterans at the county."
Now Crews is working to establish a Collier County group of Gold Star families, those who have lost a family member fighting for our country. People interested in finding out more can call Bernadette LaPaglia of Hodges Funeral Home at Naples Memorial Gardens, at 239-597-3101.
Amadeo Petricca of Marco Island lost a brother in World War II.
"I had two brothers in World War II, two brothers in Korea, and I served in the Cold War," said Amadeo Petricca, now 77. Their mother, he said, never really recovered from the death of her oldest son. "She was never the same person after his death. She was devastated. She wore black clothing till she died, and she died early, at 62."
Luigi Rosati, technically Petricca's half brother, was killed on September 12, 1944, at Alsace-Lorraine in France. He was a technical sergeant in the U.S. Army.
Scott Cline is the Commander of VFW Post 4254 in Bonita Springs. His good friend, Capt. Bruce Kevin Clark, just died on active service in Afghanistan. While Clark's wife, who was "skyping" or video-conferencing with him at the time, initially thought he had been shot, apparently he died of a massive heart attack. Cline will share his reminisces at the Bonita Springs Memorial Day ceremony on Monday morning.
With no military draft in this country to make service in the armed forces a shared, universal experience, many people are removed from the personal consequences of war. Memorial Day, for those who pause to take note, is set aside to remind us that freedom isn't free.