Memorial Day has finally arrived. Summer officially kicks off and this weekend represents a celebratory time as the country re-opens after a year in quarantine to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. But there is also a more somber observance that will take place at military grave sites and memorials locally and across the country, as families, friends and those in the nation’s military pause to remember and honor the sacrifice of the men and women who have died in the defense of our country.
Thankfully the numbers of men and women serving the armed forces who have died in combat have declined significantly over the years in spite of our military engagements in Viet Nam, Panama, Granada, Beirut, Iraq and Afghanistan.
According to the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery “combat fatality rates fell from 55 to 12 percent between the start of World War II and the most recent conflicts, as did the KIA (killed in action) rate from 52 to 5 per cent.” Adding to these improved survival numbers is the fact that only a small percentage of military personnel, approximately 10 percent, ever engage in actual combat. The remaining personnel provide valuable support.
These reduced fatalities are testimony to improved medical services and a new approach in combat. But despite these numbers, military men and women are still in harm’s way whether at home training or in foreign countries. And in no way do these numbers diminish the pain and loss that families experience when notified that their Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airman or Coast Guardsman has died in action.
These low combat mortality numbers paradoxically heighten the awareness of these sacrifices and the need to honor not only those who have lost their lives but also the families and friends who are left behind with only memories and unfulfilled dreams.
September of last year a Gold Star Memorial was dedicated on the county’s courthouse square to recognize the pain and loss of those who have lost friends and family in defense of the country. At the time of the dedication, the monument represented the 66th established in the nation and only the second one in the state.
Two local mothers, Trish Slape, Morehead City and Maria Myers, Beaufort, spearheaded the construction and dedication of the two-sided granite monument. Their purpose was two-fold, to remember the loss of their sons and to let the community know that others who have had the experience such as theirs would not be forgotten.
Mrs. Myers’ son, Captain Donald Lee, U.S. Army helicopter pilot, died in 1997. Mrs. Slape’s son James, a sergeant in the U.S. Army National Guard, an explosive demolition expert, was killed in the Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2018.
The Gold Star Monument, like all others, is two sided. One side bears the words, “A tribute to Gold Star Families and Relatives who sacrificed a Loved One for our Freedom.” The other side tells a story in four panels, of homeland, family, patriotism and sacrifice. The scene on each panel contains the names of the community’s Gold Star families and their fallen. At the center of the tribute is a cut-out creating a silhouette that represents the loved ones who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s freedom.
Connie Asero, a former county resident and local radio talk show host, herself the sister of a fallen Marine, remarked during Memorial Day events that the particular service member may have volunteered for service as her brother had, but the family was seldom given the choice. “They (the family) were automatically drafted into the service” she noted, and as such were the ones burdened with the fears of loss.
Her remarks are particularly poignant this week as we celebrate the opening of the summer season and the lifting of a national quarantine. The families and friends of these fallen warriors may be less inclined to feel the excitement of the moment. Instead, they are left to reflect on the loss of their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and close friends.
Two benches are located next to the Gold Star Memorial, one dedicated to Capt. Lee with the inscription, “In Loving Memory.” The inscription on the bench dedicated to Sgt. Slape reads, “Never Forgotten.”
These inscriptions should apply to us all tomorrow as we pause at 3 p.m. to honor all who have given the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including those who are left behind with the burden of only memories and lost opportunities. You are not forgotten.