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War dead honored at Memorial Day observance

Flags whip in the breeze at the Maumelle War Memorial. Photo by Bill Lawson
Flags whip in the breeze at the Maumelle War Memorial. Photo by Bill Lawson

A large crowd of Maumelle residents turned out Monday on a balmy beautiful summer morning to pay tribute to the men and women who have given their lives in this country’s battles, observing Memorial Day at the Veterans Memorial at Lake Willastein.

The number of World War II veterans gets smaller each year, as the number of survivors of that biggest war in our country’s history becomes more of a part of our distant past. Just a handful of veterans of that great conflict attended Monday’s’ event.

One of them, retired U.S. Navy Captain Ben Swartz was just 17 when in 1943 he enlisted in the Navy and served during the war. He later received a naval commission as an officer following his graduation from Notre Dame, rose to the rank of Captain and then command his own ship. A 32-year resident of Maumelle, Swartz, 88, said he also saw combat during the Korean War.

One WW II veteran said only younger veterans of that war are still alive and able to get out and around like Swartz.

A much younger retired veteran — Rob McGill, a longtime Maumelle educator as principal of Pine Forest Elementary School, superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District and now executive director of Academics Plus Charter School — was the keynote speaker at the brief observance.

Rather than tell the history of the observance as most speakers tend to do, McGill, a former Arkansas National Guard Lt. Col. put the day in practical terms as he described a fateful day in 2004 when his unit, the 39th Infantry Brigade formerly took charge of the base it had assumed in Iraq and on that first day a rocket attack claimed the life of four men under his command and seriously injured six others.

McGill — then commander of the brigade’s 39th Support Battalion spoke eloquently about the event and gave each listener his personal emotional context of losing friends, colleagues and soldiers in battle.

The 39th is Arkansas’ largest National Guard unit and has been deployed several times since Sept. 11 2011 to Iraq and Afghanistan and has suffered numerous casualties in most of those deployments.

Being able to identify and tell stories about those killed that fateful day in 2004 added perspective and realism to most people attending the event who may have known people killed in war action but most not as well as McGill did.

The switch from veterans of World War II to younger veterans at military events like this is a significant change this state has seen for the past 40 years coming only recently.

As usual there were also several Vietnam veterans in attendance.

Also, as usual, there were probably as many people enjoying the Lake Willastein atmosphere and its amenities, fishing, camping and spending a day in the park with family almost not even aware of the observance back in a corner of the park that honors the proud heroes of this country who fought and died to preserve our freedoms.

Built on military ceremony, the event was tactful and touching as Boy Scout Troop 295 presented the colors. Girls Scouts from the Maumelle Dogwood Service Unit led the Pledge of Alliance and another Maumelle young veteran, Parks and Recreation Executive Kevin Cummings, a retired Navy Petty Officer dressed in his formal white uniform and presented the wreath honoring the soldiers, sailors, airmen, coast guard members and Marines who have given their life in protecting our country’s freedoms.

Cummings distinctive slow ceremonial type salute to the wreath and the war dead’s honor was the most touching moment during the brief ceremony which was over in plenty of time to give attendees a chance to enjoy the day with family and friends.

Mayor Mike Watson paid special tribute to Robert Hopper, of Wynne, the man who started Arkansas Fallen Heroes Memorial tribute with a field of flags — one for every man and woman from Arkansas who has been a war casualty since 2011. He includes both those lost from active duty units and from Arkansas’ citizen soldiers who were activated to fight in our various wars since that September day.

Hopper’s own Marine son was killed early in the war and this public display is his way of honoring his son and the sacrifice he and others have made, he said.

Watson proclaimed May 27 as Arkansas Fallen Heroes Memorial Day in Maumelle in recognition of the hard work that Hopper puts into placing a large display of American flags, getting bigger each year, Watson said as each flag represents an Arkansan killed in recent wars since 2011.

Hopper said the folks in Maumelle have been very generous in helping him fund the memorial and he appreciates coming to a city that observes its traditions. All along the interstate driving to Maumelle, Hopper said he saw one American flag after another raised to full staff until he got to Maumelle and saw the flag at half-staff, as it should be, he said as a sign of respect and sadness over the sacrifice so many Americans have made to keep this country free.

Once again, U.S. Air Force ROTC Cadet Greg Moran, a school student played “Taps” on his bugle to end the ceremony in a touching manner.

With recent military and veteran’s service budget cuts, a live version of “Taps” is seldom heard even at military funerals. Instead a fake bugle with a CD player built-in is most often used. However, several members of the Arkansas Guard’s 106th Army Band have been trying to overcome that slight to veterans by performing as often as they can.

Watson also thanked city director Judy Keller for her dedication to organizing and making the Memorial Day event so successful each year.

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