Memorial Day is a somber time of reflection and remembrance of those who served the nation.
For Walt Peters, an Army aviation flight engineer and helicopter gunner who served three combat tours in Vietnam, the day is one of reflection, relief and gratitude.
“Memorial Day brings back memories,” he said. “The friends I’ve lost will never be forgotten. I made it, they didn’t.”
Some of those memories include the fear and pandemonium on base during regular early morning mortar attacks while he was conducting pre-flight checks for daily missions in Vietnam. The attacks claimed the lives of soldiers Peters served with.
“You automatically think, ‘What if?’” he said of the attacks. “I was scared to death.”
Peters, a 20-year veteran from Kingsland, later lost his vision from exposure to Agent Orange. Despite the painful memories and sacrifices he has made serving his nation, Peters said the day has a “spiritual meaning” for him.
“Every Memorial Day for us veterans is like Thanksgiving. We’re still alive,” he said.
Air Force veteran Benny Williams said he lost many friends during the more than 26 years he served. Often, he had little time to mourn.
“You have to move on,” he said. “You take a minute then you push on with the job.”
Williams said Memorial Day takes on a different meaning for veterans. He remains active in supporting veterans as commander of American Legion Post 9 in Brunswick.
“To us, it’s remembering brothers and sisters,” Williams said. “To the public, it’s more about remembering a service to others.”
Williams said President John Kennedy’s inauguration speech where he asked what people could do for their country was an inspiration.
“Our veterans did something for the nation,” he said. “I have done my job. I have done my part.”
Retired Col. Barrett King served 37 years in the Army and is all too familiar with losing friends who served with him.
He named three classmates who were killed in Vietnam, along with 28 graduates of North Georgia University who died there. King said he still has memories of a group of young cadets “who were thrilled about their future in the service.” Some of them never made it home.
King entered Gordon Military College in Barnesville in 1963, and lost many classmates later on.
“Gordon lost 18 alumni in Vietnam,” he said. “One of my most memorable was Major Gerard Wynn, a great professor of military science who taught us well. I knew all of them pretty well.”
The losses went beyond wars.
King lost a friend who was killed with his entire platoon in 1971 in a Chinook crash in Germany. And another close friend was killed along with 46 military crew and jumpers from the United States, Great Britain, Germany and France in 1982 during a demonstration jump in Mannheim, Germany.
“A new soldier in a weapons platoon I had commanded in 1970 was killed in ’71 when his 105 mm gun jeep overturned during training in Hoenfels, Germany,” he said. “In 2006, in Kuwait, we conducted services at least monthly in memorial to soldiers who were killed — women as well as men — in IED explosions, convoy attacks, HUMVEE rollovers and other combat and non-combat causes.”
King said he learned early on about the risks of military service and was willing to continue to serve.
“Probably anyone who has served, especially those who spent a career in uniform, remembers well serving with men and women who died in service,” King said. “I’m grateful that Memorial Day was set aside to remember especially, but all of us will think about someone at almost any time triggered by a note from a bugle, a passing helicopter, following a convoy on the highway, in the laughter of children … any time.”
King said he is grateful for the national holiday and the recognition given to those who have served and are no longer with us.
“We don’t need or even necessarily want a parade or a pat on the back,” he said. “We just need for America to live up to the ideals of justice, equality, and liberty for all, which was the reason we served.”
King said many veterans have a very different view of Memorial Day and displays of patriotism by those who never served.
“It’s not about chest thumping and flag waving to me,” he said. “It’s about service to a nation that is always trying to do the right thing and to become the shining city on the hill.”