WACO, Texas (KWTX) Every Memorial Day 1st Sgt. Michael Marie, of Waco, thinks about his Marine brother Cpl. Jason Lee Dunham, who in 2004, at the age of 23, while serving in Iraq, threw himself on an enemy hand grenade to save the other members of his unit.
“He was one of the select few Marines who without hesitation put his fellow Marines’ lives above his own, one of the few who would jump on a grenade,” Marie, a veteran of 22 years’ service, said.
“That’s who I think about.”
Memorial Day, is a day for remembering and honoring women and men who have died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle, thus memorializing veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
It goes almost across the board that anyone who has served in combat has a memory about a special person they encountered during their service that they’ll never forget and Memorial Day brings those memories to the surface.
“She was such a bubbly person, so nice to be around, and all of a sudden I knew she wasn’t there anymore,” said Michele Boutell, the administrator of Waco’s 19th State District Court and a Master Sgt. in the U.S. Air Force Reserve with 22 years’ service.
She was talking about her friend and Air Force buddy Brooke Caffrey, of Grand Junction, Colo., who took her own life after she returned from a deployment to Iraq.
“She’s the one I think about,” Boutell said.
“She’s who wrote my welcome letter, the first letter I got when I joined up, and I still have it.”
Boutell said she also still has the memorial announcement from her friend’s funeral.
“The saddest day I’ve ever had was my birthday when I turned older than she was when she died.”
Bill Mahon, a U.S. Army Vietnam veteran, said he couldn’t name one person but he felt a kinship with all of them.
“I just clearly remember my plane ride home (from Vietnam) and I think about the people who didn’t get on the airplane,” Mahon said.
“We shipped out on a plane full of people we didn’t know and we didn’t want to know their last names, so we learned their first names or their nicknames,” Mahon said.
“Then when we came home we were back on a plane full of people we didn’t know.
“We knew the ones that died and the ones we never found,” Mahon said.
He remembered leaving the country: “I came back from a night patrol and they told me to pack up, that I was going home,” Mahon said.
“The rest of the guys had left on a day patrol so I missed shaking their hands and saying goodbye to them,” Mahon remembered.
Rather than bringing back memories of lives lost, for Tim Orwig, of Gatesville, Memorial Day is time to celebrate a new beginning that happened for a friend of his back in Bangkok, Thailand during the Vietnam War.
“I was in Bangkok in the Army and these three American girls from St. Olaf’s College (in Minnesota) came in looking for a bar,” Orwig, 67, retired and keeping bees on a small homestead north of the city, said.
He explained he was a Spec. 4, assigned to the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps and was both stationed and billeted in a downtown Bangkok hotel.
He was 20 back then; he’d been in the Army 18 months.
“So I told them to hang on that I got off duty in a short time and my buddy upstairs was from Minnesota and I was sure he’d want to meet them,” Orwig said.
“We all went out, had a few drinks and he ended up marrying one of them.
“I was best man at their wedding on Memorial Day, so every Memorial Day I call Allen Olsen and we talk about those old times,” Orwig said.
William “Joe” Gainey, who now lives in Bell County, was the first enlisted person appointed to serve as Command Sgt. Major for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and for his decades-long Army career has been dedicated to the wellness of his soldiers.
Memorial Day is special to him because “I think about James Elliott Williams, my second cousin, and a (Congressional) Medal of Honor recipient.”
Williams (November 13, 1930 – October 13, 1999) a United States Navy chief boatswain's mate, was awarded the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam Conflict and still is considered to be the most decorated enlisted man in the history of the U.S. Navy.
“On October 31, 1966, under his command, a U.S. naval force killed 1,000 Viet Cong guerrillas, destroyed over fifty vessels, and disrupted a major enemy logistic operation.
“For his actions on that date he was awarded the Medal of Honor,” the U.S. Navy’s Medal of Honor citation page reads.
“And I always think about Sgt. Shawn Becker, who died in Iraq. I think about him every day,” Gainey said.
“Unfortunately, I lost a lot of men in combat and I think about them all the time, but especially on Memorial Day,” Killeen attorney Robert “Buck” Harris said.
Harris said the day is special to him because his father served in World War II, and he, himself, served more than seven years in the U.S. Army, February 1968 to May 1969 in Vietnam, during which time he earned a Purple Heart, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars for valor, an Air Medal and others, he said.
“I thought I was bulletproof,” he said, “’till they proved I wasn’t.”
Now 76 and still dealing with the hangover from the combat wounds he sustained in Southeast Asia, Harris says memories flood back.
“I was in the VA commissary the other day and I saw a T-shirt that said ‘Freedom Isn’t Free. Thank a Vet,’ and that just choked me up, even today.
“I almost bought it.”
He remembered coming home from Vietnam in 1969 and how veterans were treated, but “I think the country learned from that and today when soldiers come home they’re greeted and treated with the respect they deserve.
“If that was the price we had to pay back after Vietnam, it was worth it,” he said.
Memorial Day is celebrated on the last Monday of May and it had its official beginning in 1868 when Army General John Logan set the day aside, then called Decoration Day, in memory of the soldiers who died in the Civil War.
It wasn’t until 1967 the last Monday in May legally was named Memorial Day and it wasn’t recognized as a federal holiday until 1971.
Since 1775, in all conflicts borne by the U.S. armed forces, the Department of Defense says 1,354,664 have died as reported through 2016, the latest data from the Pentagon show.
But calendar dates are meaningless to Gainey because celebration of those who died for freedom is perpetual for him.
“Memorial Day is every day for me. I think of my friends every day and I am thankful to God that I was able to know them and serve with them.”
Boutell said she remembers those veterans who return from deployment who, like her friend Brooke, face issues that if left unchecked can lead to suicide.
“She needed help, and like so many others no one saw it,” Boutell said.
The U.S. Office of Veteran’s Affairs estimates between 20 and 22 returning service members commit suicide every day.
For Marie, who soon will ship out to Ft. Bliss for USMC Sergeant Major’s Academy, it’s all about keeping the line of Marines unbroken.
“There’s a lot of veterans out there and lots who didn’t come home, so that’s what this is all about, honoring those who fell.
“But after all that, remember this: We’re still here. We’re still training. We honor those who came before us, and just like them, we’re ready for the country’s call.”