Our town, Berryville, in Clarke County, Va., is typical of the small communities found in the rural areas of the USA. We have the pleasure of enjoying the beauty of the town’s location at the north end of the Shenandoah Valley, just west of the Shenandoah River, and in the morning shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
As with any town, it has its successes and failings. One lingering fault was that for years Memorial Day was observed with two separate services on Memorial Day weekend. The programs were held at two different times and locations that were only a mile apart. One service was predominantly white and the second predominantly African-American. The services used similar program formats, and both were supported by the local Boy Scout troop, high school band and veterans honor guard.
Many citizens were unhappy with the two-services format. The lesson we were teaching our young was wrong. Our practice was based on tradition, not reason. We were not honoring our deceased warriors; we were catering to the living. You don’t honor fallen warriors by race. The signals we were sending to the community were outdated and contradictory to the reasons for memorial services. The two separate services were, in fact, an insult to our fallen brethren. The lives and sacrifices of these veterans needed to be honored regardless of their race, creed, color or national origin. These men and women may have served together, trained together, shared dreams together and in some cases may have died together. The warrior’s ethos transcends sex, rank and ethnicity. As one of our Memorial Day speakers stated: “Shot and shell are equal-opportunity destroyers.”
A small, but active, group of concerned citizens gathered to correct this situation. Members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9760 and American Legion Post 41 met with leaders of the community and reached agreement on a single service.
The new format pays tribute to our military dead, honors the essence of the day, promotes citizen participation and attendance, accommodates patients from the local Veterans Administration hospital, involves youths and students, and includes speakers of note and representatives of the local government.
Another important function of the Memorial Day weekend is the tradition of placing flags at the graves of veterans. This occurs at all cemeteries in the county. It is a community gathering. Flags are provided by the two posts. Veterans, local citizens, Boy Scouts and others join in placing flags. The event has become an enjoyable and memorable activity and a teaching point for parents.
All this planning occurred nine years ago. Today the community enjoys a single ceremony brimming with reverence, patriotism and camaraderie. The first consolidated county-wide Memorial Day Program was held at Rose Hill Park in Berryville, on Sunday, May 28, 2006, a beautiful spring day in the valley. Our goal was to have a memorable event worthy of the citizenry and of such quality to become a cherished tradition. At the start of the ceremony a crowd of almost 300 had gathered, and the program began.
The dignitaries on the dais included state, county and local politicians, local clergy, educators and our two special guests. The first to grace us with his comments was the Hon. John O. Marsh, past Secretary of the Army and past Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, an icon of considerable note. He delivered a few introductory remarks and then introduced the guest speaker Gen. Peter Schoomaker, at that time the Chief of Staff, United States Army. The general had a long and distinguished career. He is a highly decorated combat veteran. He is a proven warrior leader who was selected as one of the original “Delta Force” members. His presence on that day in 2006 set the standard. The entire event exceeded our expectations.
At the conclusion of the program Schoomaker commented to the committee: “Don’t change a thing … What you have here is truly Rockwellian.” With the exception of some fine-tuning of the program, we have followed the general’s advice.
The guest speakers over the past 10 years include the following:
2006 – Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, introduced by the Hon. John O. Marsh, Secretary of the Army (ret.)
2007 – Lt. Gen. Jerry Boykin, Assistant Secretary of Defense Special Operations
2008 – Lt. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, Commander, U.S. Army Medical Command
2009 – Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force
2010 – Command Sgt. Maj. Althea Dixon, U.S. Army Medical Command
2011 – Vice Adm. Norbert R. Ryan Jr., President, Military Officers Association of America
2012 – Period re-enactors for Civil War Sesquicentennial Program, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Buffalo Soldiers with the Riderless Horse
2013 – Lt. Gen. Norman H. Smith, U.S. Marine Corps; President, Iwo Jima Association of America
2014 – Lt. Gen. Walter E. Buchanan, U.S. Air Force Fighter Pilot
2015 – Brig. Gen. Neal T. Robinson, U.S. Air Force (invited speaker)
Attendance at the park on Memorial Day has become an annual event for many local families and reflects the quality of the ceremony. Three hundred attendees is an impressive number for a small rural community on a three-day weekend.
We have done what we set out to do, and we have developed a program that we believe is unequalled. We have had guest speakers of a quality and accomplishment that you will not find except on the national stage. We have had men and women speakers who are nationally known and in several cases internationally recognized. Some of these have been Service Secretaries, Assistant Secretaries of Defense, Chiefs of Staff of our armed services and the Command Sergeant Major of the Army Medical Corps.
We are proud of what this small community has accomplished. We think what we have learned and what we have accomplished is worth sharing. Our 10-year experience is most certainly newsworthy.
We believe that this is “a story worth telling.”
Note: Clarke County Memorial Post 9760 of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Lloyd Williams Post 41 of The American Legion wish to recognize and thank the two people primarily responsible for bringing these changes about. They are John Gallagher, colonel, U.S. Air Force (ret.) and Rev. Mark Clarke. Gallagher is also credited with providing the historical data and most of the narrative for this article.