Rowan County honors the fallen: Annual Memorial Day celebrates service, sacrifice

Published 12:10 am Tuesday, May 28, 2024

SALISBURY — On an overcast morning Monday, Rowan County remembered to the men and women who donned the uniform to serve their country and have since passed on.

Mike Chapman, a member of Gold Star Families, shared his personal experience having lost a brother in combat.

“I did not apply to join this group,” Chapman said before a crowd at the Salisbury National Cemetery Annex. “I did not want to be in this group.”

The Gold Star honors families that have experienced a loss of a loved one — an immediate family member — who died as the result of active-duty military service.

“Families who have loved ones in the military have an application on file for this group, but never wish to join,” Chapman said.  

Although Chapman’s younger brother Chris was 10 years his junior, Chapman said they had a lot in common. Serving in the military seems to be a long-standing Chapman tradition.

Chapman shared that his family had three ancestors who fought during the American Revolution, 19 who fought in the Civil War, a great-grandfather who served in the Spanish-American War and his father who served in the National Guard for 30 years. 

When Chris graduated from high school, he wasted little time answering the familial call to arms. At one point, Chris applied to become a member of the Special Operations Aviation Unit and was transferred to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He took additional training to become a Blackhawk mission crew chief.

Chris was deployed to Iraq during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Given Chris’ position, he was not allowed to communicate with family back home about his location. He had only been there a couple of weeks when Chapman heard a story on the radio about a helicopter crashing in the Saudi desert killing all seven personnel on board. Sure enough, one of those KIA turned out to be his brother.

Chapman detailed his arrival at his mother’s house where other family members were mourning Chris’ death. Chapman said that his mother went to her grave never “truly in peace with (their) loss.”

Chapman struggled over his brother’s death but about 12 years ago, he met someone that put a lot of that grief at ease. 

“I was attending an event in Arlington for Desert Storm Gold Star Families,” Chapman said. “Before the ceremony, an organizer asked me to come meet someone.

“My brother’s mission was to fly into Iraq to rescue a wounded special forces lieutenant on a SCUD-hunting mission. After they landed, they placed the lieutenant on board my brother’s Blackhawk. Two army medics were with him. On their third attempt in bad weather, to land at a medical unit, they radioed that they would try one more time. That was their last radio call.

I walked with the organizer over to two young adults. She introduced me to them. They were the children of the Special Ops lieutenant that my brother’s crew was trying to save. I could finally put my thoughts about his purpose to rest.”

Chapman’s family is one of about 6,000 that have earned the Gold Star since his brother perished in combat. While speaking, Chapman also addressed the roughly 6,000 veterans that commit suicide every year. Acknowledging the struggles and trauma induced on combat veterans, he encouraged everyone there to reach out to someone if they are ever considering giving up. 

“Your family and your veteran buddies, care and love you. Think about your time in service and ask yourself if you would have abandoned them in combat? Don’t abandon them now. We need you today, tomorrow and all year to stand up and help us honor those who did not come back to their loved ones. Veterans, if you know a veteran that is struggling, reach out to them. Let them know that you care.”

The service also featured comments from David Beaver, assistant director of the Salisbury National Cemetery, who shared words from famed WWII General George S. Patton. 

Echoing Patton, Beaver said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God that such men lived.”

Salisbury Mayor Pro Tem Tamara Sheffield took the podium to read a letter delivered following a veteran’s death in the Pacific Theater of WWII. Her story also demonstrated how knowledge of a loved one’s heroic final acts can lighten the blow of the devastating news. 

“The letter is from Company B, 151st Infantry, dated June 16, 1945,” Sheffield began. “The letter reads: Dear Mrs. Brown, It is with the deepest regret and a heavy heart that I write to you concerning the death of your son, Willis, who was killed in action June 2, 1945 in a campaign to recapture Luzon in the Philippine Islands. He was on patrol with part of his unit when they came under fire from the enemy. Your son remained with the others on the hill to cover the rest of the men while they withdrew. 

“Willis was as fine a man as you could ever fill the position. While on the hill covering his comrades withdrawing, an enemy mortar shell burst near him and he was killed instantly by shrapnel in the chest and neck. Although your heart is heavy with the death of your son I know your heart is lightened by the thought that your son gave his life for all the things he knew were right. Willis gave his life so that the future generations might live in a world of peace and happiness.”

The Rowan County Honor Guard provided a volley of fire while one member performed “Taps.” 

Incoming Rowan County Veterans Council President Michael Catus was recognized and Memorial Day Ceremony Chairperson Queen Williams issued a declaration of gratitude to the local groups that helped adorn the gravesites at both cemeteries in Salisbury with American flags.

“Recognition and many thanks to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, local church groups and the ROTC units for the placement of flags on the gravesites of our fallen veterans at Salisbury National Cemetery and Annex,” Williams’ letter in the pamphlet read. “Many thanks also to Engineering Service, Health Administration Service and CDCE-Voluntary Service at the Salisbury VA Health Care System for assisting with this program. Special thanks to the Harold B. Jarrett American Legion Post 342 for preparing and serving breakfast to the participants of Saturday’s event.

“We appreciate you joining us today to honor our deceased veterans.”