I can honestly say that this Memorial Day weekend started the year before. I was in attendance at Yale University's Senior Class of 2011 closing ceremonies for my younger cousin, who has now gone on to Harvard for medical school. On Sunday, May 22, 2011, I witnessed Tom Hanks give one hell of a speech as he addressed this senior class. What grabbed me emotionally and stood out in my mind was his call to action to these graduates to support the new generation of returning combat veterans. His words were powerful, but the fact that he said it to a predominantly non-veteran crowd stood out even more. "Let's provide for them their place free from fear, by educating them if they can learn, by employing them as they transition from soldier back to citizen, and by empathizing with the new journey they are starting even though we will never fully understand the journey they just completed. We all will define the true nature of our American identity not by the parades and the welcome home parties, but how we match their time in the service with service of our own."
Those words set the tone within me last year and also for this year's Memorial Day weekend. On Friday, May 25, I joined a few of my fellow coworkers and veterans at MTA Long Island Rail Road's annual Memorial Day ceremony with our LIRR Veterans Association. LIRR President Helena Williams has always been a huge supporter of the annual ceremony and has made time in her busy schedule to attend every ceremony in her current position as agency president. I can't help but wonder how many employers really go out of their way to acknowledge the sacrifices of our veterans in a meaningful manner and not just the dry corporate "thank you" emails that a lot of us have grown accustomed to. After the ceremony, she announced her support for a permanent plaque at our Hillside Maintenance Complex in honor of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We're lucky to have her.
On the morning of Saturday, May 26, I made my way to Calverton National Cemetery to pay my respects to Sergeant Major Mike Curtin, who was a former First Sergeant of my unit of Alpha Company, 6th Communication Battalion in Amityville (now Farmingdale) and a member of NYPD's Emergency Service Unit on that fateful day of 9/11. He cemented himself as a legend when during the search and recovery efforts in the 1995 bombing at Oklahoma City, he led an impromptu fire-team of past Marines in the recovery of the body of Captain Randolph Guzman, who perished in the bombing.
After rendering my salute and while heading back to my car, I came across another Marine, Sergeant James Parham, just three rows in front of the Sergeant Major. He was a member of the Port Authority Police Department on 9/11. I then headed over to the grave of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL, who made the ultimate sacrifice on June 28, 2005 in Afghanistan. In the same row, I came across other veterans who gave all during these two wars: Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Jeffrey Weiner, Army Specialist Segun Akintade, Marine Corporal Anthony Lagman, Army Sergeant Michael Esposito Jr., Marine Lance Corporal William White. I rendered the proper salute to these fallen men.
I then made my way to Long Island National Cemetery to pay my respects to Gunnery Sergeant Matthew Garvey, who to those in my unit we referred to as Gunny Highway, as he's very similar in demeanor to the character in Clint Eastwood's Heartbreak Ridge. He was my unit's Radio Chief and also a member of FDNY's Squad One on that fateful day. I remember September 15, 2001 vividly, as it was my 22nd birthday and while reporting into my unit, I also learned of his fate. It was very emotional and surreal as the Navy Chaplain was there to lead us in prayer. As I rendered my salute, I thought back on his ability to strike fear in the hearts of Marines of any rank without saying much.
On the morning of Sunday, May 27, I joined my fellow American Legion members in my back yard of Huntington, N.Y. as the town had their annual wreath laying ceremony. Every year the town pays its respects by placing wreaths in its Veterans Plaza at the WWI, WWII, Korean War, Vietnam, and the Women's Military monument to commemorate Memorial Day. This year a new plaque was unveiled in Veterans Plaza dedicated to those who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Monday, May 28, will be just as big as I will be with fellow Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America members on the deck of the Intrepid with the annual wreath laying ceremony. Last year I was paired up with another Marine, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly as we carried the wreath honoring those we have lost in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At 12:01pm, IAVA will lay a wreath before the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. We will all pause for a national moment of silence in their memory. If time permits I will then end my day in Cypress Hills National Cemetery attempting to find the grave of Sergeant Major Dan Daly, the recipient of two Medals of Honor and a Glen Cove native. I ran out of time as the cemetery was closing last year.
I do feel very fortunate and honored to be able to participate in such ceremonies. Last year a good friend of mine told me of how she felt of me being able to go to many places in honor of my fellow veterans. I don't consider it a vacation on any level, but as a way of continuing my duty. I believe this is how many veterans of my era and previous eras feel, as well.