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May 23, 2012

Reflections on Memorial Day

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Next Monday is Memorial Day. For many it is more than a holiday, it is a day when we gather as a community to express our gratitude to our country’s men and women in uniform, who by their sacrifice cannot be with us to enjoy the day.


This year, Westminster and Carroll County will mark its 145th observance of Memorial Day with an expanded parade and four-days of activities.


The tradition of the parade and ceremony in Westminster began in 1868, when Mary Bostwick Shellman followed General John A. Logan’s May 5, 1868, General Order No. 11 to adorn the graves of Union soldiers with flowers. She gathered a group of schoolchildren for the task and they walked from the old schoolhouse on Center Street to Westminster Cemetery.


Attending the Memorial Day parade and observances is a cherished tradition for those who live in Carroll County. I have no memory of ever missing Memorial Day in Westminster, (although chances are I may have missed one or two observances.)


Over the years, for me, the changes in the community, lifestyles, and the community leaders who have come and gone, are measured and benchmarked by these Memorial Day observances.


With that in mind, this year my thoughts have been torn in many disparate directions as I have pondered how much has changed in my lifetime – and the friends and neighbors we have lost over the years in the service to our country.


Last week I wrote about a local community leader, Atlee Willis Wampler, Jr., who served as the Westminster Memorial Day parade marshal for more than 44 years, from just afterWorld War II until he passed away March 11, 1991.


Mr. Wampler graduated from Western Maryland College with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and business, and as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was a tall man who all his life maintained a military bearing forged in heavy combat throughout World War II.


He served with the 70th Tank Division against Wüstenfuchs General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s elite Afrika Korps – Deutsches Afrikakorps, including the counteroffensive at Kasserine Pass, where Mr. Wampler personally accepted the surrender of thousands of German soldiers. For his gallantry in action, he was awarded the Silver Star.


I also found myself sitting quietly, reflecting on those whom I never knew who have died in defense of our country. In the last several decades as an elected official and a newspaper reporter, I have considered it an honor to help pay respects to those in our community who have fallen on the battlefield.


That said, I have grown exhausted with the gut-wrenching existentialism and overwhelming fatigue that accompanies covering military funerals for the paper.


I was quite struck by a May 6 article in The Washington Post by Ian Shapira, “Barbara Robbins: A slain CIA secretary’s life and death,” about a little-known Vietnam War casualty from a bombing that occurred in Saigon March 30, 1965.


According to the article, “The CIA director revealed only a few details about the 21-year-old woman, a secretary among spies. In the agency’s annual memorial service for employees killed on the job, then-Director Leon E. Panetta announced that a new name had been inscribed with calligraphy inside the CIA’s Book of Honor: Barbara Annette Robbins, who had volunteered to go to Saigon during the Vietnam War…


“The private ceremony inside the agency’s main lobby last year marked the first time the CIA publicly acknowledged Robbins as one of their own.


“But the slain secretary holds enough historic titles to make her an object of curiosity within the CIA. Robbins was the first woman at the male-dominated CIA killed in the line of duty. She is the youngest CIA employee ever killed. And, according to Panetta, she was also the first American woman to die in the Vietnam War.”


The 1965 time period came when the war in Southeast Asia was increasingly the topic of discussion in my family. My father, who had served in heavy combat throughout the Pacific during World War II, was familiar with the Vietnam area.


I recall being curious about the emphasis of the TV news anchors, the likes of Walter Cronkite, on the word “casualty” and thinking that there is nothing “casual” about a casualty of war.


The story of Ms. Robbins is compelling and evocative. Yet for me, what I found particularly haunting was the black and white picture of a very young American, in a far-off land, defending our freedoms, staring right at us.


It was the picture that gave me an unexplained chill… The matter-of-fact caption reads, “Barbara Robbins: A slain CIA secretary’s life and death: A private ceremony last year marked the first time the CIA publicly acknowledged that 21-year-old Barbara A, Robbins was the first woman at the agency killed in the line of duty…”


But for me, the picture represents so many pictures from that era, which were all about life before a loss of innocence, before friends and neighbors began dying in an conflict on the other side of the planet – at a time when I barely had much of a concept of the other side of Westminster or exactly where California was really located on the other side of the country.


It is important that we pause for a moment to pay homage to those who gave their lives to preserve peace and democracy for future generations.


In addition to honoring the memory of those who gave their lives for this country, it is important to reach out to their families, to our living veterans and to the service men and women who continue to defend our freedom.


. . . . .I’m just saying…


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