2007-05-25 / Columnists

It's My Turn

Why We March
By James W. Casey, New York State Commander American Legion

By James W. Casey, New York State Commander American Legion

Many years ago while planning a trip to Brussels, Belgium to visit relatives, my wife and I decided to spend a few extra days touring the countryside. With our Frommers guidebook in hand, we found we were not far from the town of Flanders. Being a proud U.S. Navy veteran, a new member of the American Legion and a student of history, I decided to visit Flanders Fields.

In Flanders Fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row

That mark our place; and in the sky

The larks, still bravely singing, fly

Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Loved and were loved, and now we

lie

In Flanders fields.

Take up your quarrel with the foe:

To you from failing hands we throw

The torch; be yours to hold it high.

If ye who break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies

grow

In Flanders fields.

JOHN MCCRAE

Our visit turned out to be a very rewarding and sorrowful experience; it also became a turning point in my life. It was during this visit to one of the most deadly battlegrounds of World War I that my commitment to our servicemen and women both living and deceased was born. The Belgium and French governments have preserved the trenches that the opposing armies had fought, slept and died in. To walk in the very trenches that were once a horrific battleground was a very sobering experience and to this day when I think about it chills run up and down my spine. We visited the massive cemeteries which are located on the site of the great battlefields. I was pleased to see the impeccable care taken of each and every grave. While we were there, a group of students from Ireland had come on a school trip to place flowers on the graves of several of their countrymen who had made the supreme sacrifice in "the war to end all wars."

We strolled through the cemetery for a while reading the crosses that serve as headstones. The ages of 16, 17 and 18 were not uncommon. Many different nationalities and religions adorned the markers. The most heart wrenching of all were the many that read, "Known but to God." We visited the recently opened Flanders museum where the sights, sounds and letters from the battlefield brought most in attendance to tears. As we drove around the countryside, we would occasionally see a small cemetery on the roadside, with just a few graves and a small flagpole. After passing several, we stopped to investigate. To my amazement, there were the graves of two privates, two corporals and a sergeant.

Driving through the next town, we found another small cemetery pretty similar to the previous one. While waiting for my mussels and frits in the local pub nearby, I asked an old man, standing at the bar nursing his pint of ale, about the gravesites along the road. He looked up at me and told me that several years earlier, the government of Belgium wanted to move these small gravesites that dot the countryside to the large cemeteries to make them easier to maintain and for relatives to visit. Then his facial expression changed, as did the tone of his voice. He pointed his finger at me and in a very stern voice he told me, "Those young men died out there defending this village. We buried them there and that's where they will stay." He turned back to his pint and I ate my lunch and left.

That day was a turning point in my life. I decided that the memories of the brave men and women that have left the safety and comfort of their homes and the arms of their loved ones to serve this great nation of ours should never be forgotten.

Several years later at a meeting of the Daniel M. O'Connell Post #272 of the American Legion at our post home on Beach 92 Street, a discussion ensued concerning poor community attendance at our Memorial Day ceremony. There was talk about shortening the parade route or possible canceling it altogether. Sitting very quietly on the right side of the meeting room was Harold Sullivan, an 80-year-old World War II veteran from Roxbury (who has since joined that Great Spirit army whose footfalls cause no sound). Harold raised his hand and was recognized by the Commander.

His voice and demeanor reminded me of that old man in Flanders I had met years earlier. "Memorial Day is the most sacred day to veterans; it's not about parades, BBQs, picnics or a day at the beach, amusement park or the track," Harold barked at the membership. "Memorial Day is a day we honor our dead. Those who died alongside us on the field of battle, our friends who never came home, those who still remain inside the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor, at the Chosin Reservoir and in the jungles of Viet Nam.

Memorial Day is the day we remember the Four Chaplains memorialized on the monument at St. Francis, the veterans whose names adorn the plaques at the base of the trees at Beach 121 Street, the young men from this community whose names are inscribed on the four plaques at the Doughboy and the women who served our country memorialized by the Doughgirl on Beach 95 Street." Harold continued, "I don't care who comes out to see our parade. I don't care if anyone comes out. I don't march for them; I march for those that fell in battle. You can do what you want with the parade but rest assured as long as I am healthy I will walk that walk and honor my heroes."

With that statement he sat down. Everyone at the meeting sat in silence for what felt like an hour. Finally, the Commander asked if there was any further discussion.

There was none.

The discussion was ended and the matter was dropped, but not before the assembled legionnaires gave him a standing ovation.

Wars, conflicts, police actions and interventions have continued and our fallen heroes lie in many foreign battlefields. We in the American Legion have no desire to see our country at war but when it happens, we support our Commander-in-Chief and more importantly, our troops in the field, their families, and the memories of those that make the supreme sacrifice.

This Memorial Day, please remember those who served our country so bravely and made the supreme sacrifice, whether you agree with this war we are currently engaged in or not. Our soldiers, airmen and Marines need your support.

The plaque on the Doughboy Monument for the 29 young members of our community who gave their lives in Viet Nam has the words, "In our hearts and minds they shall live forever"….. This is why we march.

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