by Larry Grooms, special to Aerotech News
PALMDALE, Calif.–Traditional solemnity and formal military precision were accompanied and enhanced by a new and expanded perspective on honoring and remembering America’s war dead this Memorial Day morning in ceremonies at the city’s Poncitlán Square Gazebo.
So subtle, natural and skillful was the change in perspective on the morning’s messages that it might easily be missed. This year both broadened the list of those memorialized to include Gold Star families and offered special thanks and recognition to veterans of the War in Vietnam.
It was after posting of the Colors by the Edwards AFB Blue Eagles Color Guard; invocation by VFW Post 3000 chaplain Fred Villa; the National Anthem sung by Bobby Breech; the Pledge of Allegiance and patriotic poetry readings, that Dr. David Smith, Director of Air Force Plant 42 took the podium to set the stage for another perspective to follow.
Smith, in Air Force Officer Dress Uniform, recounted three examples of Americans in uniform whose heroic sacrifices bring sadness must also bring joy. He spoke first of Marine Pvt. Peralta who threw his body onto a grenade in the first battle of Fallujah, losing his life to save his Iraq War buddies.
Smith then spoke of someone close to him, Chief Petty Officer Jenkins, the father of his stepmother and an American sailor who put to sea soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. CPO Jenkins went down with the USS Argonaut, but as Smith put it, “is still on patrol.”
Finally, Smith told of four chaplains aboard the ship Dorchester when it was torpedoed by a German submarine. The clergymen, a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi and two Protestant pastors, began handing life jackets to the sailors, and when the supply ran out, the clerics took off their flotation jackets and handed them to four remaining crew members. The chaplains sung a hymn together and disappeared into the water.
The point in each case, Smith told the audience, was that “missing them is healing; mourning them is appropriate; and celebrating them is earned by their sacrifice.”
With that conclusion expressed, a civilian in a black suit stepped forward to deliver the keynote speech for the Memorial Day Observance of 2021.
Ron Reyes spoke from the seldom expressed perspective of a generationally removed non-combatant war survivor whose only decoration is a small Gold Star window flag given to families of American military personnel killed in combat.
“Gold Star Son” Ron Reyes was born a week after his father, Ronald Reyes, celebrated his 19th birthday while serving in South Vietnam with the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. Father and son never met. Infant Ron was just a month old on March 30, 1968 when his dad was killed by a direct hit from a mortar shell in the Tet Offensive battle of Khe Sanh.
Scars young Ron carried through his childhood, teens and even into earlier adult years were invisible. Ron recalled a lonely struggle to understand and come to grips with his grief. At last, he visited the traveling Vietnam Memorial Wall replica built in Palmdale, and saw his father’s name on Panel 47E, Line 16. It was one of 58,000 names of Americans killed in the Vietnam War. Spurred by that knowledge, Reyes went on to discover he was never alone. There were an estimated 20,000 other Gold Star children in America.
Ron Reyes said his visit to the portable Antelope Valley Wall “was the catalyst to move me forward – when you can turn trauma into joy.” He said he “met 700 of my Gold Star Brothers and Sisters.” He added, “Until 2015 I didn’t know what a Gold Star Family was.”
He also drew pride in his father’s legacy as a warrior for America by learning the history of the 1st Battalion, 9th Marines. He told the audience that his late father served with a unit targeted for annihilation by communist leader Ho Chi Minh, whose son was killed in a battle with U.S. Marines. Ho called the battalion “The Walking Dead,” and the Marines took up the challenge, adopting it as a motto. In the end, the battalion had 749 names of its Marines on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and recorded combat casualty rate of 93.3%, highest in Marine Corps history, and a record Reyes said remains unbroken, and hopefully never will be.
Reyes, whose grandfather was held prisoner by enemy forces in World War II, said he travelled to Vietnam in the search for legacy, not just to see the country, “but to smell the air, see and feel the red dirt and meet with the sons of the fathers of the North Vietnamese war dead.”
Near the conclusion of the ceremonies, Veterans of the War in Vietnam were asked to stand and be recognized by the audience numbering about 125 to 150 persons. And in that moment, the Vietnam Veterans were recognized as being the most active and effect group to create positive changes for not only individual veterans, but for their families.
Even as it was acknowledged that veterans of the war in Vietnam War endured deplorable public indignities upon their return home, they were praised for accomplishing something too long neglected: Because of Vietnam Veterans, PTSD has a name.
“Thank you. Welcome home. Thank you for your service. And God Bless America.”