May 26, 2014

Youth absorb history at Memorial Day service for fallen military

Memorial Day at Resthaven Mortuary and Cemetery was about lessons learned.

Memorial Day at Resthaven Mortuary and Cemetery was about lessons learned.

And about keeping those lessons alive from generation to generation.

The cemetery was crammed with people – from 9 to 89 – on an unusually comfortable morning to pay tribute to those who lost their lives protecting America’s freedoms.

And this year, there were a few more kids closer to 9, soaking up America’s rich history of defending liberty.

“You know, I lament the lack of kids at these services every year,” said one of the keynote speakers, Sen. Jerry Moran, before the 11 a.m. service began. “It seems like we’re losing something. But look at the Boy Scouts here today, the Girl Scouts here today, the kids. It’s wonderful.”

World War II Air Force veteran Elmer Wortman, 89, spent 17 months on Guam. He wants today’s children to understand the sacrifices necessary to keep them free.

“I think all the children should know,” his wife, Irene, said. “You don’t see many children out here. I don’t know. I don’t understand it.”

Passing the Memorial Day tradition down was a theme that underscored the entire service.

“It’s important she knows about this,” said 22-year Air Force veteran Brian Straight, gesturing to his 9-year-old daughter, Issy. “It’s tough out there, and those people who sacrificed their lives, it’s just a phenomenal thing they’ve done.

Straight brought two other daughters to the service in uniform, as members of the Girl Scouts who staffed the parade route.

The reason: The Straights are a military family.

“We’re deep in the military history, my family is,” Straight said. “I served all around the world. My dad, Terrance, who’s been deceased for a long time, was a Vietnam-era vet. We’re here because we need to carry on honoring all those who fought.”

Up one of the cemetery’s roads, it was the same story for Dave O’Neal and his 11-year-old daughter, Ally.

Except O’Neal’s work is a little further along with his little girl, who snaps off with pride the history of her dad’s 1917 Ford Model T World War I evac ambulance.

“We don’t have any World War I veterans alive any more, and this is a representation of World War I,” said O’Neal, an avid World War I collector.

The ambulance is more than a restoration. O’Neal said, since no original ones survive. He recalled pulling the chassis home on a trailer, watching its bashed-out, rusted lights bouncing.

“It looked happy, like it had a new lease on life, like it knew that the earth wasn’t going to swallow it up like it has the others.”

Instead, O’Neal painstakingly accumulated the parts to re-create the ambulance from historical photos as the keynote of an adult’s fascination with World War I.

“I’ll tell you why. It’s a transition between the old and the new,” O’Neal said. “You can see photos of World War I and you’ll see a lightbulb hanging with a kerosene lantern. You can see a photo of horses with airplanes in the air. It’s a time of great technological evolution and this is a part of it. It gives me goosebumps.”

Ally is no hanger-on with her dad and the ambulance. The girl, who grew up in a house full of World War I artifacts, recounted in detail discovering the chassis, and some of the history behind the operating replica her dad built.

“I like helping him out with it and helping him restore the vehicles,” she said. “I still remember him getting the chassis. It was neat - a skeleton of the past.”

“She’s been a big part of it. She helps out and she learns a lot. I can’t wait until she gets into more World War I stuff in school. She could teach the class,” her dad said.

Passing American pride in those who defend freedom down didn’t escape the two guest speakers – Moran and Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer – either.

“We are who we are because we understand sacrifice,” Brewer said. “As a society, we have earned the privilege and the freedoms we enjoy because we have never taken our freedom for granted. As we stand here today to honor our fallen heroes, we are reminded of our obligations to our heroes who defend us.”

And Moran talked about lessons learned – from Vietnam, which taught that American soldiers should never be sent into battle without a plan for success, to today’s growing Veterans Administration health care scandal. Moran lamented the slow and inadequate access to health care facing some veterans.

“Our veterans deserve better,” he said.

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