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.
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.