Portage Memorial Day speaker: Call it a celebration

May 29, 2019

Go ahead. Call it a celebration.

Yes, Memorial Day is a day to remember lives laid down, too soon, to protect the freedoms and ideals of the United States of America, noted veteran Jon Dyerson.

As such, he told hundreds gathered in Blue Star Park Monday morning, Memorial Day is not, in the most important sense, the start of summer, an occasion for cookouts or even a day to honor veterans who survived their battles.

“It’s about being here,” Dyerson said, as rain poured from the sky. “We’re here to celebrate Memorial Day.”

Dyerson quoted a big number: 1,319,943.

That is how many men and women have died in U.S. military action since the nation’s birth in 1776, he said.

“Being a veteran myself, I know they gave that sacrifice willingly,” he said.

The rainy weather — with no thunder and lightning, but plenty of attendees without raincoats or umbrellas — called to mind, for many speakers, the harsh conditions under which many died in battle.

Vietnam War veteran Chris Schutz flew supplies into the 77-day Battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam’s Quang Tri Province in 1968.

“The 78th day dawned, quiet for the first time,” he said. “The flag was flying over Khe Sanh. It was dirty. It was ripped. But it was still there.”

The same imagery comes to mind, Schutz said, during the War of 1812 battle at Fort McHenry, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and in the iconic photograph of U.S. Marines raising the stars and stripes at Iwo Jima during World War II.

A parade down West Slifer Street preceded the ceremony at Blue Star Park — Portage’s traditional display of patriotism not only from veterans and veterans’ organizations, but also from children, including Boy Scouts, band members from Portage High School and Wayne E. Bartels Middle School, veterans’ organization scholarship winners and the winners of the Daughters of the American Revolution’s History Awards.

But Mayor Rick Dodd — who drove in the parade, with the Rev. David Hankins riding shotgun — observed, at the start of the ceremonies, that Portage’s older veterans are “a wealth of knowledge,” and a source of stories that help many generations understand and experience the true meaning of Memorial Day.

Hankins, pastor of Portage Presbyterian Church, opened the ceremony with an invocation, calling on people to honor those who died in battle by being vigilant in the effort to promote freedom, truth and justice.

At last year’s Memorial Day observance, Schutz and fellow Vietnam War veteran Dennis Benson went off-script when the time came to lay a wreath from Vietnam veterans — and laid it at the Killed in Action monument, listing the names of 116 Portage area residents who have died in military conflicts dating back to the Civil War.

This year, the ceremony was intentionally focused on the Killed in Action Monument, and each name etched on it was read aloud, by veterans taking turns reading, then saluting.

Three Gold Star family members, all of whom lost someone they love in battle, placed the lone wreath from this year’s ceremony.

Lisa Thompson’s son, Daniel Thompson, died 10 years ago in Afghanistan.

Ginny Allen’s son, Daniel Busch, died in Mogadishu, Somalia.

And Ed Nichols’ brother, Jerry Nichols, perished in Vietnam.

The three solemnly and silently walked to the rain-streaked monument and placed the simple wreath with the simply label: “Gold Star.”

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