May 28, 2018

Time to reflect on importance of honoring those who died serving

On Memorial Day, Mainers will come together across the state to honor those who gave their lives in defense of our nation’s core values. Main streets adorned with American flags will be lined with men, women and children of all ages who want to pay tribute to our fallen troops’ service and sacrifice; thousands of wooden flags will be placed at our heroes’ gravesites; and ceremonies will be held to memorialize our service members’ valor.

A state with more veterans per capita than almost any other, Maine knows what it means to serve. Maine is home to 117,000 veterans, and at the Maine Bureau of Veterans’ Services, we have made it our mission to support our veterans in every manner possible.

There are countless ways to recognize our veterans’ contributions, sacrifice and legacy, and here are a few examples of what has happened in the last year.

• Veteran service organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars-Department of Maine spearheaded an effort to complete the virtual Wall of Faces. Created by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, the virtual wall connects a face and a story to each of the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.

Only five states have acquired photos of all veterans who died in service to their country. In 2016, the virtual wall sought 243 photos of Maine’s 341 killed in action-missing in action Vietnam veterans; today, that number is down to one, thanks to a handful of dedicated Mainers like Clark Thompson and John Bouchard.

• American Legion Post 12 erected a new marker for the namesake of the James W. Williams Playground in Bangor. Park visitors can now read about the service and sacrifice of Pfc. Williams – a young man who served his country honorably in the name of democracy. In fact, the World War I Centennial Working Group has done a wonderful job of shining light on the service of those who fought in the First World War, thanks in large part to 1st Lt. Jonathan Bratten, historian with the Maine Army National Guard.

• In Portland, Bangor and Damariscotta, Maine Public hosted three trailer screenings of “The Vietnam War” by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick – an 18-hour documentary series outlining one of the most contentious periods in American history. Each screening included a rich panel discussion and heartfelt audience participation, which was at times both thought-provoking and painfully raw.

• Last Sept. 18, people from all over the United States attended a breathtaking funeral with full military honors in Caribou for Marine Corps Pvt. Alberic M. Blanchette. He was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa in World War II. His family mourned the loss and absence of their son for 74 years until the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Command made a DNA match from a nephew given four years earlier. Pvt. Blanchette is finally home.

• In December, Wreaths Across America started its annual journey from Columbia Falls to lead the nation in remembrance. Thousands of wreaths were placed at the gravesites of the deceased, including all four of our state-run veterans cemeteries.

• We all just observed an anniversary. Navy SEAL Senior Chief Petty Officer Kyle Milliken of Falmouth was killed in action on May 5, 2017, while serving during U.S. Africa Command Operations in Somalia. His death was the first U.S. combat death in Somalia since Thomas Field of Lisbon and Medal of Honor recipient Gary Gordon of Lincoln were killed in action in October 1993.

• Camp Chamberlain, the Maine National Guard’s newly completed Joint Force Headquarters in Augusta, will conduct its ribbon-cutting in June, but not before the Battlefield Cross is placed and all hand-sketched and framed pencil drawings of fallen National Guard members are hung for all to see – for all to remember.

If you would like to join in thanking veterans for their service, we encourage you to come to the Gardiner Common in July. The Wall That Heals, a replica of and mobile education center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, will be on display July 19-22. Open to the public both day and night throughout the visit, The Wall will most certainly serve as a place for both reflection and remembrance.

While the exhibit is on display, the bureau will host a Vietnam Veterans Welcome Home and Recognition Ceremony and a Gold Star Family Recognition Ceremony. Those who have attended these ceremonies tell us often about the significant impact it has had on their lives. We understand how hard it is for veterans to put themselves out there, but we assure you that you’ll have no regrets.

While Memorial Day may feel like the official start to your summer, and you begin packing for that first family camping trip of the year, I urge you to reflect on the importance of this day – and look around. In Maine, remembering is everywhere.