Memorial Day: honoring those who interrupted their lives to serve

Paul Boerger
With Mt. Shasta in the background, the Marine Corps League Siskiyou Detachment 936 presents the colors at the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden Memorial Day ceremonies May 29, 2016, outside of Weed, Calif.

The United States has been continuously at war for 15 years beginning with the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Including Iraq and now Syria, best estimates of casualties are more than 7,000 dead and more than 50,000 wounded.

At the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden Hot LZ Wall, citizens gathered May 29 to honor not only the dead from the current wars, but to remember all those who have given their lives in America’s wars.

Founded as Decoration Day in 1866 to honor the Civil War’s dead, Memorial Day evolved over the years into a broader salute to America’s fallen and was declared a national holiday by Congress in 1971 to honor all those who have lost their lives in the service of their country.

The Hot LZ Wall is modeled after the Vietnam Wall and is inscribed with names of service men and women, both alive and dead.

Keynote speaker Judy Wheeler was the first non-veteran to speak at the LZ Wall remembrance. She recounted the extensive military service of family and friends beginning with the history of the cruiser USS New Orleans that was bombed during the Pearl Harbor attack and nearly sunk at the 1942 Battle of Tassafaronga off Guadalcanal island.

Wheeler noted that after losing the front 150 feet from a Japanese torpedo, the New Orleans underwent emergency repairs and sailed backwards all the way to the United States from the South Pacific. Her dentist father joined the fully repaired New Orleans in 1943 and was involved in numerous combat actions. He treated sailors from other ships who were floated over to the New Orleans.

Wheeler spoke of McCloud high schooler Bob Ferraris who served in the infantry at the Battle of Saipan.

“What am I doing here? I’m just a boy from McCloud!” Ferraris told Wheeler.

Wheeler’s family connections to the military include:

• Father-in-law Robert “Red” Wheeler, a Navy commando who served in the Battle of Guadalcanal and was the only survivor of his original unit;

• Husband Bob Wheeler, a helicopter jet mechanic for a unit that supplied air support for river gunboats;

• Bob’s brother Gary Wheeler, a Russian interpreter during the Vietnam War; and

• Brother-in-law Lee Chambers, a helicopter pilot in Vietnam.

“My sister JoElla’s husband John Williams thought he found a great way to pay for college and he encouraged three of his friends to join the ROTC,” Wheeler said. “Within weeks, the Korean War started and all four were shipped overseas.”

“We come together today to honor those who made contributions however large or small,” she said. “We honor them for interrupting their lives to give service to our United States military. Most of these men were doing ordinary things in extraordinary circumstances. And with the passage of time, something special happens so that when we remember the names listed on this wall or if you were a commando, a Russian interpreter, a jet engine mechanic, helicopter pilot, a dentist, a college student who ended up in Korea, or even just a boy from McCloud, you become heroes to your loved ones.”

With her voice cracking and tears welling up in her eyes, Wheeler concluded, “I love these men, and today, I want you to love them too.”

The Living Memorial Sculpture Garden is the creation of Vietnam War veteran, including the siege of Khe Sanh, Dennis Smith. Welded in 14 gauge steel, the nine larger than life creations depict the sacrifice, despair, confusion and tragedy of war.

Retired Navy commander Dean Whetstine was master of ceremonies for Monday’s ceremony. Robert Menzies did the invocation and benediction, Frances Pucci sang the national anthem and God Bless America, the Marine Corps League Siskiyou Detachment 936 presented the colors and fired the three shot salute, Amazing Grace was played by the Jefferson Bagpipe Band Pipers, and John Kessler played Taps.

Thirty-nine veteran’s names were added to the Hot LZ Wall with the names read by Suzanne Breceda, Robert Menzies and Nancy Wallace.