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News / Clark County News

‘We are a force of unity’: Clark County community gathers for Memorial Day Remembrance event

'America without soldiers would be like heaven without angels: blatantly incomplete,' National Guard chaplain says

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 27, 2024, 3:26pm
14 Photos
Local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts gather to help raise the American flag at the beginning of Monday&rsquo;s annual Memorial Day Remembrance event at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site parade grounds.
Local Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts gather to help raise the American flag at the beginning of Monday’s annual Memorial Day Remembrance event at the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site parade grounds. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

In this time of marked civic strife and disunity, a few things can still bring all Americans together.

Honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice is one. Free hot dogs and coffee are another.

Monday’s Memorial Day Remembrance Ceremony on Officers Row had both. First came an hour of inspiring speeches, exhortations to remember the dead and solemn military rituals, like the slow raising of an American flag and the firing of cannons on the parade grounds.

After that came a medley of military theme songs from the 204th Army Band and, finally, a suggestion from Mike Burton, vice chairman of co-sponsoring organization the Community Military Appreciation Committee, to make some stranger in the crowd into a new friend — and then go grab some hot dogs.

Afternoon picnics are traditional on Memorial Day, Burton said, because they exemplify the best of America: community. That was a theme shared by several of speakers during the event, which was also co-sponsored by the National Park Service.

“There’s nothing like bringing community together to honor and respect those individuals who gave their lives to serve this country,” said emcee Larry Smith, a retired U.S. Army colonel, former Vancouver city councilman and chairman of the Community Military Appreciation Committee.

Smith recalled that it was 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln set the precedent for what later became Memorial Day when he visited a pivotal Civil War battlefield in Pennsylvania and made his famous Gettysburg Address — proposing that the carnage at Gettysburg would lead to a “new birth of freedom.”

The first national observance of a day honoring all Civil War dead, both Union and Confederate, was in May 1868; it wasn’t until after the world wars of the 20th century that Memorial Day became an occasion to honor all dead and missing Americans from all U.S. wars.

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The number 1.3 million was invoked by several speakers. That’s how many American soldiers have died in all U.S. wars and conflicts, they said.

“Their courage and devotion will echo through eternity,” said Washington National Guard Chaplain Mikal Lohn. “America without soldiers would be like heaven without angels: blatantly incomplete.”

Also mentioned was the number 87,000. That’s how many United States soldiers are still missing and unaccounted for overseas, according to U.S. Army combat veteran Patrick Locke. Locke talked the audience through a symbolic “missing man” dinner table with an empty chair, a red rose and an overturned glass — symbolizing the missing soldier’s inability to share the toast, Locke said.

“We are a force of unity,” said Tracy Fortmann, superintendent of the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site. “For me, all the frustration and anger and difference — they all pale in comparison to those who made the supreme sacrifice. We put all aside to reflect and pay homage to our fallen soldiers.”

“I like to think our flag doesn’t fly because the wind moves it,” said Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle. “It flies with the last breath of every soldier who died protecting it. We owe them not only this day, but so much more.”

Army Lt. Col. John Toll, a professor of military science at the University of Portland, said he can never forget visiting Normandy Beach in France, the site of the pivotal allied D-Day invasion of June 1944 that changed the course of World War II. That’s where he watched carefree children playing in the surf — and received the solemn thanks of older Frenchmen for making such joy possible, he said. (Toll said he humbly replied, “How old do you think I am?”)

Before the Memorial Day ceremony ended and the community picnic began, keynote speaker John Kaiser — a severely wounded Iraq combat veteran who graduated from Washougal High School in 1997 — urged everybody in the crowd to do some stranger an act of kindness.

Don’t post it online, he said. Just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

“It makes our society better,” Kaiser said.