Rick Peterson

Memorial Day speech of 14 years ago still rings true today

For What It's Worth

Back in 2006 I was asked to be the featured speaker at the Memorial Day program at Maplewood Cemetery here in Luverne.

It was an honor, but I don’t fully understand why it was bestowed upon me. I can tell you, however, that for me it was one of the greatest honors of my life and for that, I’ll be forever grateful.

To say I was nervous before the presentation would be an understatement. Public speaking isn’t something you would find on my resumé, and yet delivering this speech was something I wanted to do and do well for my dad.

To my dad, a Korean War veteran, Memorial Day was a sacred day, and that is the way he raised my two brothers and me.

My dad has been gone for nearly 40 years, and for some reason I think more about my dad on Memorial Day than I do on Father’s Day. I think he would like it that way.

I have been asked a time or two to put that speech from 2006 into my column. I did reprint it in 2009 in the spirit of the upcoming holiday, but this year because of the cancelation of Memorial Day services due to the coronavirus, I am honored to print it one more time.

 

Thank you. I am very honored to be here today. When Warren Herreid first asked me to be the speaker at today’s program, I was taken back a bit. I thought, “Why would he ask me to be the speaker?” When you consider the facts that I am not a veteran, I am not a politician, nor do I have plans to run for any office, you might also be asking yourself, “Why did Warren ask Rick to speak today?”

I posed that very question to Warren – “Why me?”

He told me that because of our past conversation he felt I had a message to tell, and he wanted me to share it with you.

After accepting Warren’s offer to speak here today, I started to think a lot about my dad and how we used to observe Memorial Day. Dad served a 10-year stint in the U.S. Air Force and was extremely proud of those 10 years of service. After completion of active service he believed his duty to serve continued by being actively involved in the local American Legion.

As a youngster, I watched and learned from his commitment to his fellow veterans. He was teaching me about honor and respect for all our veterans.

The message that I would like to share with you today is about having pride in your patriotism, and what I believe is our duty to honor and respect our veterans.

I started to learn about patriotic pride and our duty to our veterans when I was a kid.  If you’re at least my age, you might remember when we were in grade school we were graded on patriotism. Back in the day, in addition to the three R’s (reading writing and arithmetic) we were also graded on respectfulness, citizenship and patriotism. I personally struggled with the three R’s, but the respectfulness, citizenship and patriotism parts came easy to me. You see, I had two pretty good tutors for those courses; my tutors were also my parents.

My favorite memories of Memorial Day were as a kid growing up in Heron Lake. I may not have realized it at the time those memories were being forged, but I was doing homework on lessons in patriotism and respect for our country’s veterans.

I’ll never forget the first time Bernie Prible showed up outside our house at 5:30 a.m. on Memorial Day blowing reveille from his silver bugle. Dad knew Bernie was coming but didn’t give my brothers or me any advance warning. As Bernie blasted out reveille, Dad burst into our bedroom and roused us out of bed like a drill sergeant.

I still have memories of Dad yelling, “Move it, move it, move it,” much like Sergeant Carter did to Gomer Pile on the television show. We threw our clothes on as quickly as possible and ran down the stairs and out the back door as if we were on the Heron Lake volunteer fire department.

We all jumped into Bernie’s 1960 brown Chevy station wagon. We headed off to the Heron Lake Legion Hall where we met up with half a dozen or so other sleepy volunteers and their dads. We picked up the flags that would soon line Heron Lake’s Main Street, and most importantly, the military grave markers and couple of boxes of new small size American flags for the two cemeteries.

First we set the flags along Main Street. Keep in mind Heron Lake’s Main Street is just two blocks long, so it wasn’t long before we were at the Hillside Cemetery just north of town. 

At that time of the morning the cemetery was quiet, except for a few birds chirping. You could smell the freshly mowed grass that was covered with the early morning dew. The cemetery’s caretaker had neatly trimmed away the weeds from around all the grave monuments, and many of the gravesites had already been decorated with flowers. Even as an 8-year-old kid I remember thinking to myself, “Man this place looks really nice.”

Now it was our job to set the markers and new flags next to the graves of veterans that had made the ultimate sacrifice and also those that had returned from service, lived out their lives and have now gone to a better place.

The dads in the group were all members of the Heron Lake Legion Post 224, and they had a list of the veterans that were buried at the cemetery. We would split into small groups and canvas the cemetery, making sure each and every veteran’s grave was properly marked with a brass veteran star and small flag.

The dads made sure the markers and flags were in good condition and that they were properly located in the upper right-hand corner of the gravestone. The marker and flag had to be perfectly straight up and down. Once the marked grave passed inspection, one of the dads would stand at attention and salute the gravesite of their fellow veteran.

What started out as an agonizing early morning chore each Memorial Day developed into an annual tradition that transformed into a lifelong commitment to patriotism and a responsibility of assuring a respectful final tribute of honor and appreciation to our country’s veterans.

My dad and his Legion buddies also served as honor guard at funerals of local veterans. I remember attending the funeral of a longtime resident of Heron Lake who was also a veteran. I watched as the honor guard carefully lifted the flag off the casket and folded the flag into a crisp neat triangle and presented it to the surviving family.

As the flag was being folded, seven honor guard members shouldered their rifles and fired three shots in perfect unison for the 21-gun salute. After the echoes of the last shots passed overhead, Bernie Prible would be off in the distance with his silver bugle, this time playing taps. This final tribute offered closure for the grieving family. For the honor guard it signified the end of a tour of duty for a fellow veteran.

On April 12, 1980, my brothers and I were standing next to our mother when she was presented a flag. The flag was neatly folded into a crisp triangle. Seven of my dad’s fellow veterans fired the 21-gun salute, and the unmistakable sound of taps being played off in the distance brought tears to all of our eyes. The tears at that time weren’t tears of sorrow, but tears of pride – patriotic pride.

It was on that day that I fully understood my dad’s dedication and commitment to his fellow veterans. More than anything else at that time in our grieving process, the final tribute of respect and honor that my dad was given by his fellow veterans helped our family get through this difficult time. Thanks to the honor guard, dad’s tour of duty had been completed.

Just a few years ago I attended the funeral for the father of a friend of mine in Worthington. Shortly after entering the church, I noticed the casket was draped with the American flag, and I thought to myself, “Wow, I didn’t even know my friend’s dad was a veteran.”

During the service I learned that my friend’s dad served in World War II and had been awarded the Purple Heart during his time of service to our country.

At the gravesite the casket was neatly covered with the flag. I noticed at the back of the crowd that had gathered, three guys were unloading rifles from a van. They made their way up alongside the family members that had gathered around the grave.

As the graveside service was coming to an end, two of the honor guard guys passed their rifles off to the third guy. They went over, folded the flag and handed it to my friend’s mother.

After they presented the flag, they went back to pick up their rifles, and the three of them could barely raise their rifles to fire three rounds into the air for a symbolic 21-gun salute. Then the funeral director pushed a button on a CD player that played a recording of “Taps.”

Watching the aging honor guard do their very best to honor a fellow veteran, it was obvious that they needed help so other veterans wouldn’t complete their tour of duty this way.

We need to help. It’s our duty to help. So what can you do?

Let’s take a moment and grade ourselves on respectfulness, citizenship and patriotism. I bet most of us could use a little extra credit.

If you’re a veteran, you have a duty to your fellow veterans to assure that when the time comes, you’ll be there to help them complete their tour of duty.

If you are an ordinary civilian citizen like me, we have a duty to treat our veterans with the respect and honor they deserve.

If you play the trumpet, you should be volunteering to play at special events.

I challenge students from the schools to organize a High School Honor Guard. Instead of asking the local Legion and VFW clubs to fund your proms and other social functions, ask them to help underwrite the cost and training of High School Honor Guard.

We owe the men and women that have served this nation our respect and gratitude. It’s our duty.

On a personal note, earlier I said this was an honor for me to speak here today. In my life I have had some successes that would have made my dad proud. I have also had my share of failures that would have no doubt disappointed him. But speaking here at this Memorial Day service and really sharing his message with you, I know he would have been proud, and for that I thank you.

 

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