To those that say that we are in a time when there are no heroes – they just don’t know where to look
by David Merhar, Colonel (Ret) U.S. Army
If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we achieved so much, and prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here in the USA we unleashed the energy and genius of our men and women to a greater extent than any other time in our history. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than on any other place on earth.
The price of this freedom at times has been high, but we have NEVER been unwilling to pay that price. To those that say that we are in a time when there are no heroes – they just don’t know where to look. Just visit any military cemetery with the rows upon rows of simple white markers bearing crosses of Stars of David, to see first hand the fraction of the price that has been paid for our freedom.
Each single one of those markers is a monument to the kind of hero I speak about. Their lives ended in places like Omaha beach, Anzio, Guadalcanal, Verdun, Iwo Jima, or the rice patties and Jungles of a place called Viet Nam.
Every year, on this last Monday in May, we in the United States recognize members of the armed forces that paid the ultimate price in defense of the Nation.
But May 8, 1945 - known as Victory in Europe Day or V-E Day - celebrations erupted around the world to mark the end of World War II in Europe.
The war had been raging for almost five years when U.S. and Allied forces landed on the beaches of Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944. The invasion signaled the beginning of the end for Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany. In less than a year, Germany would surrender, and Hitler would take his own life in an underground bunker next to the Brandenburg gate in Berlin.
The formal surrender took place on May 7, 1945, in a train in the city of Reims France.
V-E Day marked the end of most of the fighting in Europe, where the end of hostilities was the cause for worldwide celebrations. Millions of people filled the streets in cities worldwide.
Still today, memorials around the world mark the events of V-E Day and World War II and honor those who served and paid the ultimate sacrifice.
One such memorial is held in the Czech Republic, the town of Pilsen, best known for its pilsner beer. Known then as Czechoslovakia, the Nazis decimated the town of Pilzen. But Patton’s 3rd Army came to the rescue and liberated PIlzen.
Today Pilsen conducts a Liberation Celebration. This year marked the 75th Anniversary of the liberation by Patton and his troops. The town is flooded with people in memory of our US troops. Every year, relatives of the deceased Americans are invited to attend the celebration.
One citizen of that city was a 14 year old girl. She witnessed an American pilot, LT. Virgil Kirkham, crash his plane near her home. For the next 65 years, the young girl, Zdenka Sladkova, was so moved by his sacrifice that she made a vow to care for him and his memory. For over 6 decades, she took the responsibility to care for his crash site and memorial.
Along with the Pilsen celebration, students of Pilzen in the 5th grade are each assigned to research one of the American liberators buried there. The graves become the student’s responsibility for an entire year, and they learn all there is to know of their service member. They contact surviving US relatives and those relatives readily respond to the child who tends their loved one’s grave.
When I read this, I wondered why we don’t do the same. Why not have our children learning about those from Ely that made the ultimate sacrifice. Well, I didn’t have to wonder very long when I was led to our elementary school. Nancy Preblich is a 4th grade teacher and every year she works with the student council to identify Ely veterans, past and present, that have served. The students collect photos of their relatives and display them along multiple walls in the school. Two of her students, Silas and Oren, discovered that their great, great, great, great grandpa, an immigrant from Sweden, served in the Civil war with the Minnesota 1st, the famous unit that was decimated but held Cemetery Ridge during the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians call it the turning point of the Civil War.
So its efforts such as our Ely students that can keep the memory and spirit of those that made the ultimate sacrifice alive.
So here is an ask, not only should our students keep the memory of our fallen alive, but when you and I come here to visit our own relatives, please take a few extra minutes to search out someone of whom you are aware, that served their Nation, and give thanks for them for the freedom we are able to enjoy today.
God bless America and thank you very much.
Merhar gave this address at the May 31, 2021 Memorial Day Ceremony at the Ely Cemetery