The true meaning of Memorial Day was brought home very poignantly to those gathered in Woodlawn Chapel at Fort Belvoir last Thursday morning for the Annual Memorial Day Observance. Through his spoken words and personal experience, Sgt. John P. Keith not only conveyed the true meaning of Memorial Day but also personified it.
Two days before Veteran's Day, Nov. 9, 2004, Sgt. Keith's HUMMV was struck by an insurgent missile. Three died and three others suffered "life long disabilities." As Keith told the audience, "I am one of them."
Although the impact took out a portion of his upper leg, his knee was hardly injured thanks to protective gear that is now a standard part of combat uniforms. But the leg would not bend or function.
"The tendons in the upper part of the leg were totally destroyed, he explained. "The only way I could describe my leg was that I was unable to bend it. It was basically useless so, after consultations with doctors and family, we decided to have it amputated," he said.
For that injury he was awarded The Purple Heart to add to his Army Commendation Medal with one silver oak leaf cluster, Combat Medical Badge, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, NCO Professional Development Ribbon, and Army Good Conduct Ribbon 4th award. But, his combat service days are over.
"I'm hoping to be able to stay in the military, but I know I'll never be able to go into combat again. I'm having some trouble getting used to that," he said after his presentation.
BORN IN Greenville, Miss., on Feb. 16, 1967, Keith joined the U.S. Army on July 13, 1993. His military education includes the Combat Medical Specialist Course. He has been assigned to several units and holds an Expert Field Medical Badge.
Prior to his Iraq tour, Keith had served in Bosnia where he was the battalion aid station top non-commissioned officer. "I was well aware of the dangers of a combat zone. In Bosnia you had to be very careful where you walked. But, Iraq is quite different," Keith said.
He only had 90 more days in Iraq when he was hit. He also lost a very good friend when that individual's HUMMV hit an IED, a five hundred pound bomb buried in the road. "It flipped the HUMMV like a toy. He was killed instantly. The only thing comforting about it is he didn't suffer — It was over in an instant," Keith said.
That was not the case with Keith. He spent many months at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and in that facility's living quarters. "My wife Pam and our two children all lived in one room. We'd get day care for the kids periodically so we could just get some time alone," he said.
Their children are a daughter, Alyssa, 5, and a son, Pearson, 2. Both joined their parents at the Woodlawn Chapel.
"Memorial Day is a day for us to honor those who have died for us in America's wars. They were all ordinary people until they were asked to make extraordinary sacrifices for their nation," is how Keith defined this holiday that was originally established in 1866 to honor those killed in The Civil War.
"When a soldier gets injured the entire family gets injured. If anyone here wants to experience the real meaning of sacrifice go across the river and visit Walter Reed," Keith said.
Preceding Sgt. Keith at the podium were Col. Brian W. Lauritzen, Installation Commander, Fort Belvoir; Command Sgt. Major Andre Douglas; Lt. Col. Bart Physioc, Installation Chaplain; and Major Bob Phillips, Family Life Chaplain.
As Col. Lauritzen told Keith before he spoke, "You have five people bringing you to this podium. That shows how much we respect your service to this nation."
He summed up not only Keith's sacrifice but also those of all the other military personnel in previous wars and in the present Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts by reflecting on a photo his seven year old daughter had taken at the Korean War Monument on the National Mall. The inscription refers to sacrifices in distant lands for people we will never know. "How appropriate for this observance," Lauritzen said.
LEADING OFF the ceremony, Physioc explained that Memorial Day only became a national holiday in 1971. From the time it was first officially recognized by President James Garfield, May 30, 1868, until well into the 20th century it was known as "Decoration Day."
Until Congress turned into one of the "Monday Holidays," homes and cemeteries were decorated with the American flag in honor of the nation's war dead each May 30. Thus, the designation "Decoration Day."
Following Keith's speech a wreath created by the Fort Belvoir Garden Club was brought forward and placed on a stand in front of the American flag. This was followed by the playing of taps.
At the close of the ceremony the wreath was taken to the Blue Star Memorial Marker just inside the base's Lieber Gate and placed on the marker by Keith, Lauritzen and Mary Scott, co-president of the Garden Club. During her talk at the Observance ceremony Scott explained, "The marker was established in 1945 by the club's founder Paula Cushing to honor those who served in World War II."
Cushing, a military wife, died within the past year. "This year the wreath also honors Paula for her dedication to our military veterans," Scott said.