Remembering America’s Heroes

WHEELING – Cold raindrops fell to the ground at Heritage Port Monday like so many tears shed by those remembering loved ones who died defending their country.

Despite the weather, a crowd of about 50 turned out to show their patriotism and observe Memorial Day during an hour-long ceremony at Wheeling’s waterfront. Though the holiday comes around just once per year, thoughts of fallen friends are never far from the minds of the surviving veterans who stepped up during America’s times of need.

“I do this every day of my life. I think of those guys,” said Dave Schoenian of the Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter 709. “But more importantly I think of the families … whose sons or daughters have made the ultimate sacrifice.”

Larry Beck, commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 442 of Elm Grove, said he, too, constantly thinks of the mothers and fathers who were unable to provide comfort as their sons and daughters drew their final breaths.

“On the field of battle, when death is at hand, surely a cry goes out. … It is a cry that pierces the heart of anyone who should hear it, and that is, ‘Mother, Mother, I am so very sorry,'” Beck said.

As a civilian invited to speak at Monday’s event, Wheeling Fire Chief Larry Helms shared the perspective on war of U.S. Marine Sgt. William Stacey, a 23-year-old Redding, Calif., native who was killed last year during his fourth deployment to Afghanistan. Stacey wrote a letter to his family to be opened in the event he did not survive, which was made public after his death.

“My death will not change the world. … If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change the world, then I will know that it was all worth it,” Stacey wrote.

Of the young fallen soldier’s words, Helms said: “It is up to us to prove that he was right.”

John Nanny, commandant of the Marine Corps League of West Virginia, urged veterans to join organizations such as the American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars. Many such organizations are suffering from aging membership and are struggling to replenish their ranks from among those returning from conflicts in the Middle East.

Stronger membership is critical, Nanny said, as those organizations lobby Congress for increased veterans’ benefits.

“If you don’t have the numbers, they don’t listen to you,” he said. “We need you on the rolls. … Let’s not let them down.”

Several area veterans took part in an “empty chair” ceremony, a somber ritual in which participants lay several symbolic items upon a table set for one to honor those killed or missing in action and taken prisoners of war.

Elements include a single red rose representing bloodshed; a slice of lemon to symbolize their bitter fate; salt sprinkled upon a plate for the tears shed by loved ones; a glass, inverted to show they cannot toast with friends and family; and a candle to represent hope that those missing in action might one day return.

Beck and American Legion Post 1 Commander Joe Fatigati closed the ceremony by casting bouquets of flowers into the Ohio River in remembrance of their fallen comrades in arms. The Warwood Community Choir, led by D. David Stiles, provided music for the event.