Heroes, family and memories on Memorial Day

Published 7:53 pm Monday, May 28, 2018

More than 100 people spent Memorial Day morning under the hot sun at Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery. Friends and family were joined by those who served and others that wanted to remember the heroes that are no longer with us.

They came for the annual Memorial Day ceremony organized by the American Legion Nansemond-Suffolk Post 88, the Horton Wreath Society, Patriot Guard Riders and Tidewater Tidal W.A.V.E.S. of Hampton Roads.

They stood when the wars in which their loved ones served were called from the podium, and when asked who had a loved one buried at the cemetery, nearly all of them were on their feet.

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The voices of those they lost can still be heard today, according to Gerald Rhoads, former department commander of the American Legion Department of Virginia.

“You remember their voices from conversations you had before they gave their last measure of devotion,” Rhoads told the audience. “Even if you are not a Gold Star family member, a battle buddy, a friend or relative of a fallen hero, all you have to do is look around you and you will see their legacy. It is us. We are their legacy.”

Gerald Rhoads, former department commander of the American Legion Department of Virginia, addresses the crowd gathered at Suffolk’s Albert G. Horton Jr. Memorial Veterans Cemetery for Memorial Day.

Representatives placed the ceremonial wreaths on Monday that signify the responsibility of all citizens to honor those that made the ultimate sacrifice. Volunteers placed thousands of American flags beside the headstones of service men and women, as well as the resting places for military family members.

Thierry and Amy Grom volunteer at the cemetery every year and rode their bikes to the Monday service. Both of them served in the Army and now work for the U.S. Government through the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Thierry Grom’s brothers, father and grandfather all served, and he and his wife work to teach their 12-year-old daughter, Sarah, what that means.

“We want to make sure that she understands and carries on the remembrance of our nation,” he said.

“We want her to understand the sacrifices veterans have made,” Amy Grom added.

More than 8,000 men and women rest at the cemetery, Rhoads said. There were too many stories to tell in one ceremony, but Rhoads spoke of two veterans from history who made their marks.

The stories featured servicemen like Frank Luke, an ace American fighter pilot in World War I who amassed 18 aerial victories in just 18 days before his plane was shot down in France. He shot against encroaching German ground forces with just his sidearm before he was killed. He was 21 years old, among the many who have given their lives before age 25.

“In the eyes of their loved ones, they are forever young,” Rhoads said.

The stories also featured the likes of 1st Lt. Sharon Lane, who volunteered for the U.S. Army Nurse Corps Reserve in 1968 during the Vietnam War, when women were exempt from the draft. On June 8, 1969, Lane died after a 122-millimeter rocket blasted through her ward, killing her and a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl.

She was the only female nurse to be killed by enemy fire during the Vietnam War.

“The heroes that we remember today are not exclusive to any race, religion or gender,” Rhoads said. “They are a diverse group wedded to the common principle that America is a nation worth dying for.”

These heroes had loved ones back home who then had to live with their immeasurable losses. Rhoads listed some of their daily reminders: empty seats at the dinner table, smaller Thanksgiving gatherings and the voices of loved ones that become more and more distant as time goes on.

“Remembering our fallen heroes once a year is not enough,” Rhoads said. “The widows, widowers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children remember every day.”

Dorothy Naylor was with her family on Monday for her husband, Gerald W. Naylor, a Navy Chief Warrant Officer 2 who served from 1965 to 1989 and spent time in Vietnam and Lebanon. The loving husband and grandfather died on March 19, Naylor said.

“He was strong and always looked ahead,” according to his granddaughter, Tamara Moss.

Mildred Jones was at the headstone of her beloved husband, James Jones Jr., with her daughter, Sophia Jones, and granddaughter, Erica Staton. He was a private first class in the Marine Corps that was proud to serve and had a big heart, Staton said. He died on Dec. 18, 2011 at the age of 77.

“We come often, all throughout the year,” Mildred Jones said with flowers beside the marker.

A young child named Kaitlyn Polich sat beside her father’s marker adorned with her own bouquet of rainbow colors. Michael Polich Jr. was a culinary specialist for the Navy who served in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. He died on Dec. 23, 2017, at age 44.

Kaitlyn described her dad as adventurous, perhaps even a bit reckless. He would talk to her about funny problems with seasickness and cooking for his shipmates, which sometimes meant microwaving chicken nuggets, a food both she and her father loved.

“He was a big knucklehead, but he was really smart and caring,” she said.

“He was a great man that will be missed,” said Kaitlyn’s mother, Robyn Polich.

Kaitlyn’s great-grandfather was actually Albert G. Horton Jr. himself, and her grandfather, Albert G. Horton III, was with the two of them at his son-in-law’s marker. He said that people simply need to keep their sacrifices in mind and understand that everybody knows somebody who served.

“They don’t have to make a long trip to do that,” he said. “Just fly the flags and remember them in their hearts.”

It’s not just the sacrifices of the men and women who gave their lives that need to be remembered. Those that carry their legacies and keep their stories alive need to be heard.

“We need to be there for them, not just as members of the American Legion family, but as American citizens,” Rhoads said. “Nobody can replace these fallen heroes, especially in the eyes of their families. But we can offer shoulders to cry on, assistance with educational expenses and assurance that their loved one’s sacrifice will not be forgotten.”