Memorial Day is about family, friends, community

Monday, I was honored to give one of the thousands of Memorial Day speeches given across this great nation. Below, is a condensed and slightly altered version for this audience and space.

To me Memorial Day is personal. It’s not so much about numbers, not so much about the thousands who gave their lives for this nation, although all are important.
It’s about family.
It’s about friends.
It’s about community.
Let’s begin with family.

My youngest uncle, Dan West, graduated from high school in 1943. A year later, he went ashore at Normandy on D-Day. He had barely reached the beach when he was hit in the back by a fragment of a shell that killed his best friend .

After recovering, Dan was sent back to the front, and was in the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest during the late fall of 1944.

Dan saw a lot of combat. He told me once that on the front lines there is no front line.

The weather was cold and wet, the land was covered with snow, Dan jumped in and out of trenches breaking through thin ice into frigid water. When he finally was taken off the front lines, he took off his boots for the first time in more than a month. His feet swelled up and turned black; he had trenchfoot. Eventually he recovered enough so he could walk again. Forever after, however, he had poor circulation in his feet.

Dan died at age 60 after suffering a massive stroke. I believe that his circulation issues with his feet were a factor in causing that.

I tell this story not because my family is special, but because I think stories like it are common among American families. Those stories aren’t often told out in public. They are more likely told around the kitchen table. Honor those members of your family who made those sacrifices, by keeping those stories alive.

Memorial Day is also about friends.

I know three names on the wall of the Vietnam Memorial. The first is Army PFC David Schultz, a high school classmate in Waseca. I’m of the baby boomer generation, and when I was in seventh grade, the schools were so crowded that David and I had to share a locker.

After graduation, David tried to enlist, but was turned down. So he moved to Milwaukee and got a good job driving a fork lift. Then Uncle Sam decided to draft him. He was sent to Vietnam and died from a bullet wound at age 23.

Marine Cpl. Tommy Lewer lived in Waseca too, but moved with his family to Bemidji at age 12. A year before he left, the kids in our end of town decided one summer to build soapbox derby cars. A friend and I beat everyone with one exception, Tommy Lewer and his brother John.

Tom went to Vietnam and was killed by a grenade during the Tet Offensive. His company commander remembers him saying, “If I return, I want to go into the ministry.”

As for the third name, I played high school basketball against Army Sgt. Charles Klancke of Glencoe. Charles was a tough competitor and had a great jump shot. He was an only child; his father died when he was 3.

Because of a mix-up, just two years ago, his mother finally received a Gold Star for his sacrifice. She was in a nursing home, and she passed away two months later. She took that gold star with her to her grave.

And finally, Memorial Day is about community.

You may know that the Battle of Gettysburg was the deciding battle of the Civil War, but I wonder if you all know the critical role that some people from this community and those surrounding it played in that battle. On the second day, the First Minnesota Infantry Regiment, 262 soldiers, was being held in reserve.

They were near the left end of the Union lines. Military historians who have studied the battle said that if the Confederates had been able to reach the end of the Union line, they would have started a flanking movement, and rolled up the Northern troops. If so, we would not be standing here today in the United States of America.

At a critical moment, the union needed time to move more artillery and troops into position to stop the South’s advance.

Those 262 men were ordered to attack, and without hesitation charged down the slope through a hail of bullets and artillery shells, coming from 1,600 troops from Alabama. The battle raged for only 15 minutes, but it was enough to stop the Confederate advance and bring up re-enforcements.

However, at the end of the charge, only 47 Minnesotans were still standing. Among the 215 not so fortunate were: Pvt. Kellian Drondt of Cold Spring, wounded in the head; Cpl. Jacob Kouts of St. Cloud, wounded near the elbow; Pvt. Benjamin Noel of St. Cloud, wounded in the leg; and Pvt. Albert Pooler of Osakis, unspecified wound. Cpl. John Mc-Kenzie of St. Cloud was wounded in the thighs and died a month later.
Also, Cpl. James Brower of Sauk Centre was wounded, but recovered, and moved to Round Prairie in Todd County with comrades Henry Ellingson and William Onerman. Brower became county surveyor and Ellingson became its first register of deeds.

Memorial Day is personal. It’s about family, about friends, about community. And so when President Lincoln said,  “… that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion…,” I think you and I need to take that advice personally. Remember them not en masse, but for the human beings they were with individual hopes and dreams and talents — and family and friends and a community.

It’s personal. Keep their memory alive by telling their stories and honor them by rededicating yourselves to the principles of self-government that their lives have made possible. Thank you.

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