Each year millions gather on Memorial Day, barbequing and pitching horseshoes all across America. While most pass the time with ease and carefree delight, very few actually know what the holiday represents.
In a room of veterans, as they tell the stories of honor, sacrifice and loss, the frivolity of Memorial Day vanishes in the blink of an eye, exposing on the hard truths of warfare.
Five local veterans stopped by the offices of the Herald-Guide to have their stories recorded. They represent over fifty years of military conflicts.
John Clark of Hahnville, Raymond Walters of Vacherie and Charles Cancienne of Des Allemands served in Vietnam. William Becknel of Ama served in World War II and the Korean War. Robbie Wilson of Hahnville, the youngest of the bunch, recently returned from Panama, but she watched many of her friends head off to Iraq.
For Wilson since spending time in the military, Memorial Day now takes on greater meaning.
"What Memorial Day means to me, and other veterans, is that it was a day set aside to honor all of the veterans killed in the time of service," said Raymond Walters, who is Department Commander of the American Legion of Louisiana. "But the day has gone off into other things, other issues, as far as people having parties and what not," he added.
Walters served in Vietnam, working reconnaissance for the Army. While he remembers his fellow soldiers, he does not enjoy the modern depictions of warfare. "One thing I do not do is watch any war movies. It's because it brings back a reflection of Vietnam, what I went through," said Walters.
As each soldier told his story, it became apparent the profound impact that war has had on their lives. Most were in their early twenties when they headed off to foreign lands.
"When I joined, I definitely wanted to make some noise over there," said Cancienne, serving on the U.S.S. Galveston and U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, recalling naming shells for fallen soldiers before loading them into the ship's cannons. Cancienne said one was for Chester Fontenot, a local who died as a medic in Vietnam. Attending Fontenot's funeral, Cancienne was encouraged to join the Navy. Today, Cancienne is Commander of Veterans of Foriegn Wars Post 3750, Luling.
"I left Vietnam on a stretcher. Because of the care I received I became a paramedic after being a medic in the service," said Clark, adding that he could not even look at a casket when he returned home, as it reminded him of his friends that he had lost. Overcoming that pain was a great hurdle for him to mount, but it was a vital one for him to regain the real world.
Helping vets has become a cause for each resident, as Clark serves as the Dept. Executive Commiteeman of the American Legion and District Commander for the VFW.
The receptions each soldier received upon returning to America has changed drastically. "When I came back, I got no respect," said Williams, who fought at Okinawa, a notorious place where Japanese soldiers fought with bitter ferocity and would not surrender. It was battles like Okinawa that some U.S. officials used as an impetus to drop the atomic bomb to end the war. "And if it wasn't for America in World War II, you'd be speaking Japanese or German," he added. Becknel serves as Post Commander for VFW Post 1455.
Cancienne recalled an even colder reception: "In Vietnam, we didn't get welcomed back because it was an unpopular war," adding that he was harassed by many opposed to Vietnam.
But, regardless of the war, each of these soldiers took an oath to defend the country, not to criticize the conflict. All that they were doing was their job. That is what makes condemnation so hard, especially to the Vietnam vets.
"A lot of young people are unaware (of what older veterans went through)," said Wilson, adding that public has changed how they greet the returning soldiers. Wilson said that she has not lost any friends in Iraq.
As for what has changed the American public's perception of soldiers, Cancienne said, "The military now is a professional type military," as opposed to a draft army like Vietnam. This according to him and Wilson has also increased the skills of the modern soldier. "When I went in you were just an ordinary Joe," said Cancienne.
"We want the American citizens to welcome the soldiers home, to honor them for their hardships," said Walters. All of the veterans believed that this improved greatly since Vietnam.
In honor of Memorial Day, each veteran recalled the name of one their fallen friends. "Chester Clyde Fontenot," said Cancienne. "I had a very close friend die right along side of me. His name was Clarence Williams," said Walters. "Charles Thomas," said Clark. "Warren F. Brown," said Williams.
Remembering the fallen is of the utmost importance to each veteran.
"I ask the public to learn what Memorial Day is about by attending a service," said Clark.
|Photo by MIchael Luke|
|William Becknel, Robbie Wilson, Charles Cancienne, Raymond Walters and John Clark.|