As Memorial Day approaches, remember our fallen heroes

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Some of the most humble people in America are our Medal of Honor recipients. When asked about this iconic medal, they often state that they don’t wear the medal for themselves – they wear it for those who never returned from combat.

Next weekend, we all have the opportunity to remind ourselves of the great sacrifices that so many made in the service of their country. Memorial Day has been a special day for almost 150 years. Sadly, many Americans now treat this day as just a welcome part of another long weekend with not one thought given to its meaning and importance.

Each year when Memorial Day approaches, my thoughts turn to three extraordinary Americans who were killed in combat. Fortunately, none of these men have been forgotten, and the family members deeply appreciate that their sacrifices have been commemorated.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Wayne Pearson was flying a combat mission over Laos on Feb. 22, 1969. Shortly after he rolled his F-4 aircraft in to attack the target, his aircraft became a ball of fire. I was his wingman; I screamed over the radio, “Eject! Eject! Eject!” Sadly, only one parachute was seen. The backseater, Lt. Mike Heenan, successfully ejected. Wayne did not.

Twenty-six years later, at Arlington National Cemetery, in a very moving ceremony, Wayne was buried. The Air Force conducted a missing-man formation with four F-15 aircraft. Everyone who survived the mission on that fateful day was in attendance. Wayne’s wife and their children flew in from Chicago. The family was deeply appreciative that Wayne was remembered in such an appropriate way. They found what they were looking for – closure.

THE SECOND warrior I remember each Memorial Day is U.S. Army Maj. Donald Walter Holleder. Killed in close combat on Oct. 17, 1967, he was awarded the Silver Star posthumously. Thanks to the remarkable persistence of his West Point classmate, Leroy Suddath, there was a ceremony at Arlington just last month.

Holleder’s Silver Star had been upgraded to a Distinguished Service Cross. His four children each expressed their joy that their dad was not forgotten. Holleder, a first-team All American football player, was my roommate at West Point. It was at his wedding that I met Connor Cleckley Dyess. If it not been for “Holly,” I would not have met the love of my life.

The third man I think about often is U.S. Marine Lt. Col. Jimmie Dyess. His heroism is highlighted at the Dyess Symposium that is held every year at the Augusta Museum of History. In 2013, the date is Thursday, Jan. 10. Medal of Honor recipient Tom Kelley, who will fly in from Boston, will be honored that day. Please put the date on your calendar.

For those who want to learn more about Maj. Holleder, the new book A Spartan Game: The Life and Loss of Donald Walter Holleder, by Terry Tibbetts, is highly recommended.

The Dyess story is even easier to study. Just go to the second floor of the Augusta Museum of History and watch the DVD Twice a Hero. The “One Man, Two Ships” exhibit is the only place in the world where a Medal of Honor and a Carnegie Medal are displayed side-by-side.

IF THESE THREE American heroes could give us their thoughts today, they probably would ask us all to support our warriors, especially those who were wounded. Assisting the Augusta Warrior Project (706-434-1707) is very easy. Let me explain.

This organization is instrumental in reducing veteran homelessness; increasing warrior access to health care; decreasing warrior unemployment; and serving as the community’s voice for warrior issues. Many in our community are confused by all these wounded-warrior nonprofits.

To be clear, the Augusta Warrior Project is not affiliated with the national Wounded Warrior Project of Jacksonville, Fla., which has little to no presence in Augusta. The Augusta Warrior Project is solely focused on the greater Augusta region, and every dollar donated by the public supports programs to help our warriors.

One fine way to assist is to make a $19-a-month contribution through the Augusta Warrior Project website (www.augustawarriorproject). I just signed up last week – it was easy. From now on, I will know that, every month, there will be a bit more support for a very worthy cause. Another gifting option is to send a check made out to the Augusta Warrior Project, 1190 Interstate Pkwy., Augusta, GA 30909.

One final recommendation: On Saturday, May 26, bring your family to Aiken, S.C., to attend the grand Memorial Day Parade. It starts at 1 p.m.. At least 70 units will participate. Gordon Chevrolet has provided its 1950s fire truck to carry some Augusta warriors
and the Augusta Warrior Project banners. Please thank the
soldiers and veterans that you encounter.

(The writer – a retired U.S. Air Force major general – is the secretary of the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. His email address is genpsmith@aol.com.)


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