‘They were like John Wayne’

Matt Harrelson | Daily Journal Charles Gainey, representing the Richmond County chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America, stands at attention and salutes his group’s wreath and the Fallen Soldier Battlefield Cross.

Matt Harrelson | Daily Journal The AMVETS Post 316 ceremoniously folded the American flag while Chaplain Charlie Tyler explained what each fold meant during Saturday’s Memorial Day service.

Matt Harrelson | Daily Journal Richmond County military groups were asked to come and place wreaths representing them around the Fallen Soldier Battlefield Cross in Richmond County Veterans Memorial Park.

Matt Harrelson | Daily Journal The AMVETS Post 316 performed a 21-gun salute followed by Taps on trumpet by Richmond Senior JROTC Cadet Mikla Bacon.

ROCKINGHAM — “They paid the ultimate price to protect the United States.”

No truer words can sum up what Memorial Day is all about as Rockingham Mayor Steve Morris read the city’s proclamation Saturday afternoon under a blue and white sky in Richmond County Veterans Memorial Park. The only color missing was red — which represents the blood American troops have sacrificed while serving our country.

“By serving our country with valor in the United States military so that we may all live in freedom,” Morris went on to say.

Those who have served and continue to serve in Richmond County were honored Saturday as a way to remember their selfless sacrifice.

“When I was 8 years old, I got my first job,” said state Rep. Ken Goodman, guest speaker for the Memorial Day observance. “It was a paper route with the Richmond County Journal, and I got 60 papers. It was a downtown route, and three days a week I’d go down South Lee Street and up and down Franklin Street selling those papers, and I made two cents a piece. Well I sold 20 of those in the courthouse, and every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I would go in there and I’d stop.

“There are two bronze plaques when you go in the front door, one on the left and one on the right. The one on the left has the names of Richmond County boys that died in the Civil War, and the one on the right has our World War I soldiers who died. I was about 8 years old. I would go in there, and I would stop and look at those plaques. These people to me were heroes.

“I would read the names to see if I could recognize anybody that I knew, and to me they were like John Wayne, they were like movie stars, like people that I had seen in all the movies that were popular back then. It seemed like everybody had some connection with the military.”

Goodman said every American man, woman and child had some part in the World War II effort, either working in the defense industry, serving in the military or making sacrifices such as abstaining from buying everyday items.

Spurred on by Rosie the Riveter, housewives filled factory jobs vacated when their husbands were deployed. Families grew victory gardens. Goodman said those days of unity and common cause seem to be gone.

“In 1955 when I was 8-years-old, it seemed like everybody was connected with the military, and I think it was a far different time. Today things are different,” Goodman said. “People don’t seem to have a connection to our servicemen and women like they did then. Only 1 percent of our citizens are in the military now. People just don’t seem to have any idea about what young people are doing today.

“We still have young people who are fighting and dying right now defending this country. We are about to celebrate our 14th Memorial Day since 9/11, and since that time, 2 ½ million of our finest young people have gone to Iraq and Afghanistan. Sixty-five hundred of those people have died, but again, people today don’t seem to know what’s going on. They don’t seem to be as concerned.”

The message was clear, though. No matter when they fought, or in which war, or whether they came back or not, each servicemember’s role was and is important. Goodman knew that would be the basis for his speech on Saturday.

“I know that any of you that have been in combat, if you came back healthy, you left something on that battlefield,” said Goodman. “I think that we as citizens need to understand that. When I was asked to make this speech, I decided to go back up to the courthouse and look at those names again. I was looking at that plaque and it just seemed different. Those names meant a lot more than they did when I was a child. The significance of what they did meant a lot more.

“After I left there, I came down here. I looked at these monuments, and I walked among these crosses and I read the names on these headstones. A lot of those people were and are my friends. After that, I came and sat down on one of these benches. I tried to ask myself: ‘What do we owe these 1 million people who died defending this idea that is the United States?’ It’s more than a country, it’s more than land, it’s more than buildings, it’s an idea that started in 1776.

“Since then, a million Americans have died defending this idea. This idea of a government by the people, for the people and of the people. What do we owe them? What do they want from us? They want us to remember what they did and understand why they did it. But even more important to us, they want us to ensure that this flag, this star-spangled banner, remains.”

Reach reporter Matt Harrelson at 910-817-2674, listen to him at 12:10 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays on WAYN 900 AM and follow him on Twitter @mattyharrelson.