Tag Archives: Memorial Day

Remember our heroes, and their families, this Memorial Day

By Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs

In 2008, I went to a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for an American hero. The hero I saw laid to rest that day was surrounded by many, many more heroes — his family. Memorial Day flag folding

That funeral was held on April 9, 2008, for Maj. Robert F. Woods, an Airman who was missing in action and buried at Arlington nearly 40 years after he went missing in Vietnam June 26, 1968. Attending the funeral were dozens of members of the Woods family from all over the U.S.

What I remember the most of that funeral was the way the family talked about Major Woods like they had just seen him even though four decades had passed since he left their lives. “How amazing,” I thought that they remembered him so fondly after such a long time and how appropriate it was that Major Woods received full military honors for paying the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s because of people like Major Woods, and his family, that we have Memorial Day. According to www.usmemorialday.org, Memorial Day was “officially proclaimed” May 5, 1868, and first observed May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate Soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Memorial Day is not about division — it is about reconciliation,” the website states. “It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.”

I couldn’t agree more.

In looking back at American history, there are millions of Americans who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their nation. They are all heroes and should be remembered as such forever.

Every one of those heroes, like Major Woods, also had families who paid a high cost in sacrifice and support. While their loved one is off doing their part as a military member, they manage the homefront and do whatever they can to support their warfighting family member. To me, those family members are heroes as well.

That day I spent at Arlington with the Woods family, I watched as the folded flag was presented to the family by the Air Force Honor Guard. I watched the tears fall and saw as granddaughters and great-granddaughters touched the casket of a man they had never met until that day.

Later, in talks with Major Woods’ daughter, Lana Taylor, I learned about a man who loved his family deeply and “always went when his country called.”

Major Woods had served more than 20 years when he went missing. He began his career as an enlisted Airman who served in the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940s, and was a Korean War veteran who flew KC-97 Stratotankers during the conflict, earning an Air Medal.

Major Woods’ granddaughter, Courtney Woods, recalled of how fondly her grandmother, Mary Woods, talked about a man she’d never met and how that shaped her image of Major Woods as “more than a war hero.”

“One thing my Nana wanted my brother Mac and me to know was what a wonderful man my grandfather was,” she said. “He would write to her every single day; he never missed a single day. His letters go right up until the day he went missing. She would let us read them, and by reading his words, we were able to see the meaning and thoughtfulness that went into each and every letter.”

Also at Major Woods’ funeral was Lt. Col. Phil Heseltine. He’s not a family member but might as well have been. Colonel Heseltine presented a POW/MIA bracelet he wore for 18 years that had Major Woods’ name chiseled into it.

“I purchased the bracelet in 1990 during a POW/MIA event at my Air Force ROTC detachment,” Colonel Heseltine said.

Colonel Heseltine brought along his wife Jenny and daughters Alexa and Livie. It was a gesture that Mrs. Taylor later said “just overwhelmed” her. When asked about his family meeting the Woods family, Colonel Heseltine said, “I’ll admit I was nervous. But once they arrived and I met them I saw what wonderful people they all were.”

Some of those same “wonderful” people will be visiting with Colonel Heseltine again in June 2011 in North Carolina. The 911th Air Refueling Squadron — where Colonel Heseltine is the commander — will be dedicating the Robert F. Woods Memorial Auditorium at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base June 26.

The auditorium dedication is another way of remembering Major Woods and his family of heroes. It also serves as a reminder to all of us that our fallen heroes like Major Woods, and their families, are the people who we should remember this Memorial Day.

Memorial Day ceremony at Air Force Memorial

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James A. Roy and Airmen from around the DC area celebrated Memorial Day with a ceremony at the Air Force Memorial in Arlington. Below are photos taken by Senior Master Sgt. Raymond Sarracino.

U.S. Air Force bugler Master Sgt. Ken Oedemann, left, plays taps while Air Force Honor Guard member, Staff Sgt. Matthew Massoth salutes at a Memorial Day wreath laying ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va. Monday.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Roy, center, salutes a wreath during the Memorial Day ceremony held at the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va. Monday. Chief Roy is flanked by Dan Derrow of the Air Force Sergeant’s Association and Jim Lauducci of the Air Force Association.

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force, James A. Roy addresses a crowd during a Memorial Day wreath laying ceremony at the U.S. Air Force Memorial in Arlington, Va. Monday. Chief Roy is flanked by Dan Derrow of the Air Force Sergeant’s Association and Jim Lauducci of the Air Force Association.

Special Dispatch from Ali Base — A Higher Calling

While others were recently celebrating Memorial Day with cook-outs and vacations, our Airmen and Soldiers remained vigilant for the ultimate memorial—that for a fallen Soldier. Thanks to Lt. Col. Richard J. Hughes (below) for sharing this story with Air Force Live. And a special thanks to all Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who are deployed worldwide and stateside to help protect us.

A Higher Calling
By Lt. Col. Richard J. Hughes, 407th Air Expeditionary Group Deputy Commander

It’s 115 degrees Fahrenheit, and we’re in the shade of an aircraft silhouette. The wind is blowing steadily at about 25 knots (29 mph).  It’s like standing in front of a giant hair dryer. The weather forecaster says there are gusts up to 35 knots (41 mph). The wind is sending a steady stream of sand and dust whipping across the Ali Base flightline into the faces of Airmen and Soldiers alike. There is silence, except for the wind.

Yet, we stand, at attention in two straight lines beginning at the ramp of a C-130 Hercules. We’re waiting to render honors. We ignore the heat, the wind and the sand. We are humbled by the presence of one of our countrymen.

Thirty minutes prior on this Sunday morning, the day began very much like any other day with physical training then off to the Group to get planes and people moving. However, today I needed to get to the chapel for religious services–time for personal prayer and reflection.

Exactly three minutes into the service, the chaplain assistant tapped me on the shoulder. “Sir, the command post needs to speak with you immediately.”  Damn, I thought, I just signed off the net five minutes ago. After saying a quick prayer, I went to the chapel annex.

“Sir, we just got notified of an inbound ‘hero’ flight, due on the deck in 30 minutes,” said the on-duty emergency action controller. “It was diverted in flight by the Combined Air Operations Center, and they’re here to take a Soldier home.” I asked if the brigade and garrison commands have been notified. Our installation is a joint base, and the respective service usually handles all the coordination.

“Sir they’ve been notified, however we’re unsure if they’ll have a team in place,” the EAC said.

I said, “I’ll be on the flightline ramp in 10 ‘mikes’ (minutes).”

Waiting on the ramp were three Soldiers from the brigade mortuary affairs platoon. They had prepared the remains of a young Soldier, killed the day before, for transport. Moreover, they were tired having worked throughout the night to get him ready for his final journey.

The weather forecast indicated deteriorating conditions. The crew needed to be off the ground in 15 minutes to beat the weather, but would wait as long as possible. It was time to act quickly to get this Soldier home – but with the honor he deserved.

Calling over the radio net, I asked an Ali Base chaplain to come quickly to the ramp. The aircrew was reconfiguring the aircraft to receive the fallen Soldier. Several Airmen from the terminal were nearby. I gathered them together and briefed them on the situation.

The chaplain pulled up–this was his first ‘hero’ flight. We didn’t know the Soldier’s faith; the Army mortuary affairs team only had a name and unit. It didn’t matter, because the chaplain knew exactly what needed to be done.  Chaplains endeavor to meet the religious needs of every service member, regardless of faith.

“Group!  Present arms!” Twenty arms rise simultaneously and hold the first of a series of final salutes to the Soldier. The flag-draped casket, carried by three Airmen and three Soldiers, passes by silently and solemnly. The chaplain follows slowly, saying prayers as he walks. The pallbearers place the casket gently in the hold of the aircraft.

“Order arms!” Twenty arms slowly drop. The chaplain remains, continuing to say prayers for the Soldier, his family, his friends and his fellow comrades in arms. We pray silently to ourselves for this young man who is far from home and away from those who know him and who are grieving their loss.

“Group! Dismissed!” The small formation takes a step back, does an about face, and marches off silently. I thank the crew for allowing us to take the time to render honors to this fallen Soldier.

As Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines, we routinely endure hardship and sacrifice on behalf of our fellow countrymen. Unlike any other profession, ours comes with the realization that we may pay the ultimate sacrifice thousands of miles away from home, in a foreign land. We are duty- and honor-bound to do whatever we must to protect and ensure the freedoms of our citizens.

When one of our own makes that final, ultimate sacrifice, we must do everything we can to make sure he or she is given the highest level of honor and respect. Nothing interferes with that obligation. That is why – despite the heat, the sand and the wind – we gathered on a flightline in southern Iraq. It is what needed to be done for a Soldier who paid the ultimate sacrifice – one who met a “higher calling.”