Every year since 1868, Americans celebrate Memorial Day by remembering and honoring the courageous men and women who have given their lives on the battlefield in defense of our country. It's a day to reflect on the selflessness, dedication, and sacrifice of those who put our country's freedom before all else, and it's a day to honor the families -- the parents, siblings, and children -- of those who lost the men and women they loved most.
Almost four and a half years ago, I started Wish of a Lifetime (WOL), a non-profit organization with the goal of helping to change the lives of seniors in a meaningful way by helping them fulfill their dreams. Today, with help from individual donors and our national corporate partner Brookdale, the nation's largest senior living provider and our lead national sponsor, we have extended our mission across the country of enriching the lives of seniors by granting life-long wishes. Many of these wishes have been granted to veterans -- we've sent a 94-year-old WWII veteran and his wife to Normandy to renew their wedding vows; a WWII and Korean War veteran to take a flight on a B-29 to honor his brother who died in the Doolittle Raid; and united a 93-year-old female WWII pilot with a Tuskegee airman.
A few weeks ago, WOL and Brookdale teamed together to grant a wish for Ted Somes -- a Coast Guard veteran whose dream was to travel to Tarawa to play Taps over the unmarked grave of his cousin killed in battle during WWII.
Ted was a child when his 16-year-old cousin Arthur lied about his age to enlist in the Marines. After training, his cousin was quickly deployed overseas, where he was stationed on Tarawa. He was killed shortly after at 18 years old in the bloody massacre of the Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. What were thought to be his remains were shipped home, and a funeral was held in his hometown. Forty years later, three complete skeletons were found, along with the boots, watch, helmet liner, and dog tags of one of the soldiers. The etching on the helmet's liner read, "Somes, Pfc." The remains laid unclaimed, as a body had already returned to the states with Somes' name attached. They were buried in an unmarked grave on the island.
Every year in Tarawa, Private Somes' name is mentioned in the prayer that's dedicated to the fallen soldiers on ANZAC Day. Through our efforts, Ted was on site to give his cousin a proper burial. He played Taps on his coronet over his cousin's grave to honor his memory and service.
While in Tarawa, Ted kept a journal of his experience at ANZAC Day and the ceremony at the Coastwatchers Memorial. He wrote:
It started with all singing "O God, Our Help in Ages Past." A Lieutenant Commander from the Australian Navy talked about the history of ANZAC Day and its importance in Tarawa. He spoke about the US Marine sacrifice and that there are still many remains on the island, including one who may be beneath the memorial.
There was wreath-laying by all the officials, then three Australian children, three New Zealand children, and then the public (I was the only public.) "Last Post" (the equivalent to our "Taps") was played, raising of the flags from half-staff, the National Anthems of Australia, New Zealand, and Kiribati. It closed with "Abide With Me" led as before by the nuns, and a final prayer.
Shortly after, Ted returned to the memorial to play "Taps." He wrote:
I got rather emotional the first time... I did it again, still not as well as I should, but I knew I could do no better while there. The sky was deep blue with white fluffy clouds. As we were walking back to the car, a very light, soft rain started seemingly from nowhere just around the memorial and us. We could see that the street wasn't getting wet. Kerry [a league organizer] told me, "The Kiribati people have a saying that when it rains while the sun is shining, the spirits are crying. Your cousin has heard you."
When Ted returned to Florida several days later, he wrote:
As short as this trip was in comparison, it was an adventure equal to my cadet cruises on the Eagle and living and working in Belgium. It surely was the Wish of a Lifetime.
Helping to grant Ted's wish of honoring his cousin's death, and the wishes of other seniors and veterans, gives me a sense of fulfillment and purpose -- this is why we started WOL.
Every fallen servicemember and every veteran deserves to be honored and celebrated every day. For more information on seniors' and other veterans wishes, visit here.