Honoring veterans and those who have died in service to U.S. armed forces doesn’t require signing up to join the military, said the keynote speaker at Monday’s Effingham County Memorial Day observance at Veterans Park on Monday.
Maj. Steven Gerber of 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team told those in attendance that living up to the American ideals on a daily basis is a way to pay tribute.
“The way we live our lives is also a salute to those veterans,” he said. “This country is peculiar in world history. It has more wealth and more peace. It is grand in its ideals. It is worth fighting for, it is worth dying for, it is worth living for, it is exceptional.”
Gerber said he has talked with people who couldn’t join the military because of a physical or mental problem and marked how they distraught they were over that. He said he told them they can still serve, even without a uniform.
“You’re doing your part; do it day-by-day,” he said. “Just be good. Love people and respect people.”
Gerber enlisted and was a medic stationed in Germany before he went to the U.S. Military Academy Preparation School and eventually graduated from West Point, earning a commission as a second lieutenant. A nurse he worked for had been a member of the long range reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam, soldiers who operated far beyond enemy lines.
His mentor impressed upon him counseling wayward soldiers rather than resorting to an Article 15 proceeding. When Gerber served in a warrior transition battalion in Kansas, a nurse complained about the actions of a soldier whom Gerber then counseled, rather than go through an official punishment. That soldier is now a veterinarian in California and has written a book.
Gerber also recounted the story of a soldier on patrol in Vietnam who saw a grenade thrown into the column of troops in which he was marching. The soldier jumped on the grenade, suffocating its blast and saving his fellow soldiers but at the cost of his own life.
“He dove on the grenade, he died, his friends lived,” Gerber said. “There is no training or preparation for a moment like that. It’s not muscle memory. So what went through his head when he saw that grenade? Was he thinking he must save his friends? Was he thinking ‘I’ll never reach that swinging bench on the front porch when I’m 85 years old’? Was he thinking he’ll never see his mother again?
“What the man did was lovely, good and laudable. Our highest praise and exultation should be upon him. We need to honor these men and women but how do we do that? Remember them consciously and do our own part.”
Gerber also noted the story of Thomas Nelson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who commanded a Virginia militia detachment at Yorktown. In Yorktown, Gen. Cornwallis commandeered Nelson’s palatial home for his own headquarters. As American cannons battered the town, the gunners did not fire upon Nelson’s house out of respect for the commander’s own home.
Incensed, Nelson insisted the cannons target his own home. Nelson also helped bankroll the war effort, pledging his own estates as collateral. But he was never reimbursed by Congress and he died in poverty at age 50, Gerber said.
Rev. Andy Krey, a Navy veteran, said in his invocation that “we pause to honor and memorialize the more than 1 million men and women who gave their lives for our beloved country. None of those brave and courageous persons in uniform joined the military to become rich. But their sacrifice has made us one of the richest if not the richest nation on Earth, rich in material wealth, rich in liberty, rich in freedom and rich in patriotism.”
Gerber said it is up to the living to keep the memories and stories of the ones who served alive.
“Memory will rust,” he said. “Memory will evaporate and it will go back to the earth. So to honor our dead and our veterans, we have to keep those memories. Not many will want to talk about their experiences, but some will. So record it, write it down and then write the book.”