Formerly known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day originated in the years following the Civil War and became an official federal holiday in 1971. Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries or memorials, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades.
For local veterans, especially, it is a day of humbling, knowing that they were one of the lucky ones (those who have deployed) to come back home while some of their brothers and sisters in arms never did.
“It can be hard for some veterans on Memorial Day,” said United States National Guardsman Sgt. Monty Middleton. “It’s not a day for veterans, but a day to remember all those that made the ultimate sacrifice so we can thrive and continue to live in this great country.”
Middleton went on to explain that, over the many years and wars that have come and gone, and even the still prevalent war in the Middle East, the meaning of Memorial Day can be lost.
“It can be hard for veterans to accept a thank you for your service handshake as Memorial Day is about honoring those we lost,” he added.
Middleton, a 10-year veteran with the U.S. Army National Guard understands first hand how it feels to lose a buddy in action and the perils of what it feels like to deploy for active duty.
He enlisted in 2010, and for most of his two years after that, he spent the majority of his time with the Guard. After finishing roughly 17 weeks of basic training, he returned to Paris before being called to duty. He set out for another four months of training preparing for overseas deployment to Afghanistan.
“We trained for months preparing for deployment,” he said. “Then, at the last minute, another battalion was sent instead of mine. But, it turned out that we were quickly turned around, and before I knew it, I was on my way to Afghanistan.”
Being a part of the Guard, Middleton explained that they fill the “gaps” when the regular Army needs it. They train the same, just not as often, but are always on standby should they get the call to deploy.
And for this small-town boy, his first overseas trip was to a war zone, something that he never thought he would do in his younger years, but was ready and able to serve his country.
Middleton’s unit worked closely with an Italian unit that was stationed at the same base and remembered fond times of working with them outside on patrol or during training exercises.
Over his time spent deployed, he made many friendships and experienced first hand what it was like to lose a buddy. Middleton says, to him, it is crucial to recognize Memorial Day for what it is. A day dedicated to honoring military fallen, with a particular focus on those killed during military service or enemy contact.
For fellow Lamar County local; retired Corporal Toby Keenum with the United States Marine Corps., he too understands the perils of war and the importance of this day.
Keenum enlisted into the Marine Corps in 2005 when he was 19-years old, and worked as an administration clerk. He said he was initially told that his probability of being deployed to active duty was low.
However, he wouldn’t be so lucky; after he finished his basic training, Keenum went to North Carolina for a further month’s training before arriving at Camp Pendleton in California for his first posting. Two months into his posting, he was told that he would be deployed to Iraq for a year-long deployment.
Working at the headquarters and becoming familiar with his role as a plans and operations clerk with 1MEF, Keenum was becoming accustomed to what his role could be.
Like Middleton, this was Keenum’s first time overseas, and for the then 20-year old soldier, it was an experience, unlike anything he had thought he would get the opportunity to do.
“It was not a place I wanted to be,” Keenum said. “It is a world of its own, and when you first land on base, it takes some time to get used to the life you live there. Especially when the enemy is constantly aiming mortars at you.”
Though he was still in an administrative role, Keenum’s job was working through the paperwork for casualties. A job he said took a few months to settle into, as it can become extraordinarily tolling and overwhelming.
Though Keenum had what most would consider a tough assignment when deployed, it set him up to have a stellar two years ahead when he came back stateside.
His work enabled him to receive several standout awards for the work he did, but he was also fortunate to work under three Generals. Two of the most notable were General James “Mad Dog” Mattis and General John Kelly.
“They were two totally opposite personalities to work for,” Keenum said. “But I really enjoyed that time of my service working with the top leaders of the Corps.”
When talking of the good and the bad, Keenum said that most days during his deployment to Iraq weren’t the best days. Mostly because of what was happening over there and the tasks at hand for what he was required to do.
But there were also good days and one of those came when General Mattis presented him with one of his two Navy & Marine Corps Achievement Medal (NAM), a decoration presented by the United States Department of the Navy to service members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. who have performed commendably in routine duties or exceptional achievements that have not been recognized by a higher award.
Keenum was recognized directly for his work in Iraq, and after, when he cycled through paperwork to ensure all casualties were accounted for correctly, whether they were injured or killed in action. His role also took on the task of ensuring those that earned a medal where correctly awarded and paperwork enabled those medals to be given to soldiers or families on their behalf.
“To receive one is great, but I never expected to receive two,” he said. “To have one been presented by a General is also a great honor to have.”
For two local veterans who paid their dues to their country and served proudly, both men encourage civilians, especially those who can make the time, to acknowledge our country’s fallen soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice and those who never came home.
“We wouldn’t have the country and freedoms we have today if it wasn’t for those that fought for them. They paid the price of freedom and have earned the respect for all to be honored, remembered, and never forgotten,” said Keenum.
“Paying tribute by attending a memorial service or reading about what Memorial Day is all about are just a few ways to show respect,” added Middleton. “Memorial Day is not a day to thank veterans, it’s a day to acknowledge that most all veterans have lost a buddy, a brother or sister who never made it home to their families.”
With an ever-changing world, one thing has stayed the same, those few that enlist to serve their country are putting themselves above all else to ensure the freedoms and privileges of all Americans.
This Monday, May 25, locals can show their support for those fallen as they are honored at the Love Civic Center at 2025 S. Collegiate Dr., where the Red River Valley Veterans will host a service with special keynote speaker Craig Reed, pastor of Holy Cross Episcopal Church.
Reed served a tour in Iraq with the USMC as a U.S. Navy Chaplain. The service will begin at 11 a.m., followed by a wreath-laying ceremony at the Red River Valley Veterans Memorial. Local Boy Scouts Troop 2 will post and retrieve the colors.