These are special times for John Riggs.
The 89-year-old World War II Marine veteran, a month removed from an Honor Flight to see the memorials in Washington, D.C., said he wasn’t about to miss Monday’s Memorial Day ceremonies at Resthaven Cemetery.
“It’s an honor to be alive, to be frank about it,” he said. “It’s important to me to see all these people here. They’re thinning us out, us World War II veterans.”
Riggs joined hundreds of Wichitans on Monday, as a strong south wind buffeted everything, to hear military service honored by Rep. Mike Pompeo and officials from McConnell Air Force Base. The event included a flyover by the Jayhawk Wing of the Commemorative Air Force, and performances by the Scottish Highland Bagpipes and the Air Capital Chorus.
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“I hope that people appreciate the sacrifice that my generation and others have made,” he said. “It was important to fight. It still is when we have to.”
It was that appreciation that Pompeo, a West Point graduate and Air Force Col. Charles Carlton from McConnell emphasized.
Pompeo cited the service of two Kansans, Father Emil Kapaun, who died as a prisoner of war during the Korean War, and Eddie Graham, a survivor of the Bataan Death March. He read the names of the 12 Kansans who have died in military service since he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
“While Memorial Day is not a religious holiday, it is absolutely a sacred day, a righteous day,” Pompeo said. “This idea of freedom is important. It makes it right to fight. It makes the battle important. It makes these losses important. ...We must uphold what they fought to preserve.”
Col. Carlton talked about the history of Memorial Day, dating back to its post-Civil War founding in 1868 as Decoration Day.
“Unfortunately today, many of us can picture a specific individual, be it a relative, a friend, a co-worker, who has paid the ultimate price in defense of America. I would like us all to take a moment right now and think of that person, and think of their family, and thank them for giving their all,” Carlton said.
Carlton said 83,000 Americans remain unaccounted for from various wars, including 7,500 people missing from the Korean War.
“We will never stop looking until all have returned home,” he said.
Carlton also noted the dwindling numbers of World War II veterans like Riggs and Vietnam veterans in the audience.
“Our ability to hear first-hand from our World War II and Vietnam veterans will not last forever, as we have observed final reunions such as Pearl Harbor,” Carlton said.
That’s why Iraq veteran Lynn Rolf, a state Veterans of Foreign Wars official, and Resthaven superintendent LeRoy Stine, a Vietnam veteran, work to pull off the annual celebration, in its 55th year on Wichita’s west side.
“For younger people like us, it’s a huge sense of patriotism,” Rolf said. “For us to recognize our fallen comrades, and even those comrades who’ve passed away, is something that’s very important.”
“To me, the whole thing is special,” Stine said. “I’ve been involved in the program here for years, and it’s just a sense of patriotism.”
And a chance to say thanks to veterans.
“Memorial Day brings a particular poignancy to the nation recognizing indescribable loss that the affected parents, spouses, siblings and children feel every day,” Col. Carlton said. “We must never let the sacrifices of our falling, captured, missing and wounded be in vain.”