Memorial Day speaker: ‘We are in their debt’
By Mark Wineka
Memorial Day means more than parades, picnics and baseball games for Dianne Coffey and Michelle Sweet.
It’s why they traveled more than an hour Monday morning from Catawba County to the Memorial Day service held at the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex.
Vietnam-era veteran Ronald Coffey ó Dianne’s husband and Michelle’s father ó died nine years ago, and his funeral was held on Memorial Day.
So every year on this holiday, the family makes a point to visit his stone marker at the original Salisbury National Cemetery in the heart of the city.
But their thoughts this year also are with 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Derick Sweet, a U.S. Marine and Michelle’s son and Dianne’s oldest grandson.
This past week, he left Camp Lejeune and arrived in Afghanistan on his first tour of duty.
“We watched him get on the bus last Saturday,” Coffey said.
As they sat through Monday morning’s service at the National Cemetery Annex at the Hefner VA Medical Center, the family felt it important to honor soldiers who have died, the veterans who live and the soldiers who fight for the country today.
“It kind of brings it all together,” Dianne Coffey said of Memorial Day. “It means a lot to us in general.”
A large crowd ó many with similar stories ó put their holiday weekend plans on hold Monday morning to attend the “Memorial Day Remembrance” at the National Cemetery Annex.
The main theme of Command Sgt. Maj. Robert Graves’ keynote address Monday was to let today’s soldiers know ó before their lives become marked by a tombstone in a national cemetery ó how much their service is appreciated.
“Memory is our responsibility,” the Army’s Graves said. “We are in their debt.”
Across the country, Americans were asked to pause for a national moment of remembrance at 3 p.m. Monday.
“Freedom is not free,” a phrase often repeated on Memorial Day, should never be looked on as a cliche or bumper sticker slogan, Hefner VA Medical Center Director Carolyn Adams said.
Some 40 million Americans since the Revolutionary War have fought for the country and a million sons and daughters have given their lives in wars.
Adams reminded her Salisbury audience that everything enjoyed by Americans today was paid for by those who died and by 23 million veterans still living who stepped in harm’s way against the forces of tyranny and aggression.
A Guilford County native, the highly decorated Graves recalled a recent trip he made to Arlington National Cemetery where he overheard a visitor tell his companion, “Look at all those tombstones.”
But that visitor should have said, “Look at all those soldiers,” Graves said. Each one had a face, a spirit, a story and a family, and each made a sacrifice.
On Memorial Day, Graves said, it’s important to remember the dead and thank the living veterans, such as his older brother, Jimmy, who served two tours in Vietnam.
“Thank you, Jimmy,” he added.
The holiday also is a time to think about what family members left behind go through, Graves said.
He and his son were stationed in different parts of Iraq at the same time and, on a couple of occasions, they were able to have brief visits.
Graves recalled how, at the end of one of those meetings, they donned their body armor and shook their weapons as their way to say goodbye.
It later made Graves think of all the things that must have gone through his wife’s mind when she watched them leave the States a month apart from each other.
The families of warriors serve on the home front, Adams said.
Just ask Dianne Coffey and Michelle Sweet.
Notes from Monday’s Memorial Day in Salisbury: Don Webb, president of the Rowan County Veterans Council, presented a special service award to J.C. Beaver, who is “semi-retired” from the Council’s Honor Guard … N.C. Reps. Lorene Coates, D-Rowan, and Fred Steen, R-Rowan, both on hand for the program, are serving as primary sponsors for a bill that would raise the homestead exemption for totally disabled veterans from $45,000 to $75,000 … Hudson-Miller-Tatum VFW Post 3006 of Salisbury invited people to their Brenner Avenue headquarters after the program for free hot dogs … Almost 20 motorcycles driven by veterans of the Patriot Guard ushered in the colors at the start of the ceremony … Rowan County Veterans of the Year Narvie Bonds and Gregg Evins of Rowan Regional Medical Center were the veterans chosen to place the memorial wreath … Martha Corriher of American Legion Post 146 of Landis sang songs before, during and after the program.