Raising a flag about lowering THE FLAG!

It’s after Memorial Day-2010 and I’ve been working on this blog for about a week, in hopes of having it finished prior to the start of the holiday weekend but life got in the way and that didn’t happen.

In retrospect, I’m glad I procrastinated. I’m glad I waited, because now, I think this blog has even more meaning.

The hot dogs are all gone, the parties and picnics are over. Now it’s time to think about what Memorial Day is really about. My goal is not to go into some patriotic tirade that offers the opportunity for readers to tune out before they even tune in, but more importantly to share with you some personal experiences that have put this annual remembrance in perspective for me.

PART 1 – DICKEY KESTER:

I had the honor, over just a few short weeks, of assisting in preparing for a special remembrance ceremony for a firefighter from my department who was killed in action in Vietnam 40 years ago. The sad part is that it has taken us 40 years to bring this fitting tribute to his grave site.

Inspired and led by Chief (Ret.) Bruce Green Jr. who recognized that this year was the fortieth anniversary of the death of Richard L. (Dickey) Kester, some of us senior members of the department decided that something needed to be done. His sacrifices were too long overlooked. Bruce took charge of mustering the rest of the fire department to do the right thing and his motion at our monthly fire department meeting was met with an enthusiastic outpouring from the membership of donations to offset the costs of the flowers that would be worn by our firefighters and laid upon the grave.

I set about having a banner created to honor him and all veterans. Without hesitation, Trace George, president of VSP Graphics graciously donated the beautiful banner that will now hang from the rafters in our firehouse. Senior Designer Mike Nachtrieb exceeded our expectations for the design.

Someone else maintained the grave site and placed the flags and fire department memorial marker that now properly identify the tomb as that of one of our own. Dan Guest from the Angola Pennysaver generously featured our pre-march announcement with a full-color photo of the commemorative banner in the Saturday edition just prior to the parade. President Geordie Sinclair and Captain Mike Relosky made sure that everyone was available to march and that our apparatus was inspection ready.

It was a tremendous team effort. The results were an even greater success.

American Flags and a fire department marker flank the grave of Evans Center Firefighter Richard L. Kester who was killed in Vietnam in 1970.

Following the traditional town-wide Memorial service in Forest Lawn Cemetery, we all hung back as everyone else proceeded back to where the annual parade started. A ten minute remembrance ceremony allowed us to pay respects to our fallen hero the way they should have been paid for the last 40 years. As a very special treat for everyone, Dickey’s mom Ruth and brother Roger were there with us. That meant a lot.

After we all laid our red and white carnations on the tombstone, I went to greet Mrs. Kester. As I walked up and just started to say “Hi Mrs. Kester. My name is…” — she interrupted me by saying “I know who you are, Tiger Schmittendorf!” We had never met, at least to my recollection, but it turns out that she was good friends with my mother. As my mother passed away when I was 13 years old and thus I few strong memories of her, this special ceremony quickly became a very special personal moment for me.

She related how one day she had sent Dickey to our house to check on my Mom as she had been in labor for three days — at home! (Could you imagine?) I smiled at the story and instantly felt a strong connection to this lovely woman, and thus to my past. She couldn’t recall which of us eight Schmittendorfs were being born at the time. I’ll have to ask my Aunt Me-me if she remembers.

Melissa Green and Heather Shean took beautiful photos for us and my wife Laurie filmed the entire ceremony on video. They captured memories that will be part of our fire company’s history and Richard Kester’s legacy for years to come. I thank them for helping us keep his story alive.

Just as important as remembering our fallen hero, we paused and took the time to acknowledge our living heros who were with us for the parade and ceremony. Firefighters Robert Corsi Jr., Bruce Green Sr., Ken Hontz and John P. Weil wore white carnations signifying their service to our country. We were glad to have them with us and pleased to give them their much appreciated and much deserved recognition.

You see, Memorial Day isn’t just about remembering those who fought and were lost, but also an opportunity to recognize those who have served and survived, many of whom still carry the horror and trauma of their service with them every day. Remembering is one of the greatest forms of brotherhood that we can ever display.

PART 2: A Veteran of Many Things

My father Earl Sr. earned Purple Heart medals in two different wars.

Memorial Day is a mixed bag of emotions of happiness and somberness for me, but regardless, it’s always special for me as it gives me a chance to remember a veteran who influenced my life tremendously. My father served in both World War II and the Korean War earning two Purple Hearts and several other medals. I wore a miniature replica of one of his medals on my fire department uniform in this year’s Memorial Day Parade and carried one of his Sergeant chevron patches in my pocket to help me remember that although he passed away five years ago, he is with me every day of my life.

I just finished writing a letter to my son Alex at the request of his English teacher wrapping up a project titled “Coming of Age” in which the students had to create a portfolio for themselves detailing significant events in their lives. In that letter, I made strong references to the influence my father made in my life and his. I reminded my son of my father’s frequent support at all of his sporting events and encouraged him to give back for the privileges and blessings he’s received by following in his grandfather’s footsteps of being recognized as a “stand-up guy.”

To keep my father’s legacy alive, I offer you this link to the article I wrote about my Dad for last year’s Veterans Day remembrance: http://tigerschmittendorf.com/2009/11/11/a-veteran-of-many-things/. Let me know if you can relate.

PART 3: Reinventing Memorial Day

I found this series of articles to be very relevant as I’ve written very recently about my admiration for our nation’s military men and women. Fast Company is one of the few magazines I receive each month that I truly read cover-to-cover. There has not been a single edition in which I didn’t find something of relevance that I could apply to my personal and/or fire service life.

Although somewhat lengthy, these articles provide tremendous insight into how Americans have lost sight of what this special day, Memorial Day, is all about. But more importantly, the articles offer ideas as to what we can do to solve that dilemma. Interestingly enough, the author suggests we use social media as part of the solution.

These are a must read for anyone who agrees that we’ve lost touch with the true purpose of this special occasion.

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So how do these three parts make up the sum of my point for this article? They all raise a flag that we should be lowering our flags in remembrance and recognition of those who have served, those who are serving and of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in serving and protecting our country and the freedoms we enjoy.

There are plenty of opportunities to remember or recognize without physically or literally lowering our flag. Like many important changes we can make in our lives, it doesn’t take a lot of time or a lot of money. It can be as simple as a personal pause and a more frequent thought; adding a flag to your house, your car or your desk; or one of the most effective ways to remember and recognize those who serve: When you see a veteran — Thank a veteran.

I’ll say it first. Follow my lead:

Thank you to all who serve.