Remember our heroes, and their families, this Memorial Day
In 2008, then Maj. Phil Heseltine, shows the POW/MIA bracelet he wore for 18 years. Maj. Heseltine was able to return it to the family at Arlington National Cementary. Today, the commander of the 911th Air Refueling Squadron prepares another memorial for at Seymour Johnson to help remember and honor Maj. Robert Woods. (USAF photo by TSgt. Scott T. Sturkol)
by Master Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
5/31/2011 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- In 2008, I went to a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery for an American hero. The hero I saw laid to rest that day was surrounded by many, many more heroes -- his family.
That funeral was held on April 9, 2008, for Maj. Robert F. Woods -- a former missing in action Airman who was buried at Arlington nearly 40 years after he went missing in Vietnam on June 26, 1968. Attending the funeral were dozens of members of the Woods family from all over the United States.
What I remember the most of that funeral was the way the family talked about Major Woods like they had just seen him the day before even though four decades had passed since he left their lives.
"How amazing," I thought at the time and still do. These family members remembered him so fondly after such a long time and, how appropriate was it that Major Woods was saluted by his country for paying the ultimate sacrifice with full military honors at Arlington.
It's because of people like Major Woods and his family that we have Memorial Day. History shows, according to www.usmemorialday.org, that Memorial Day was "officially proclaimed" on May 5, 1868, and first observed on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery -- the same place where Major Woods is buried today.
"Memorial Day is not about division -- it is about reconciliation," the Web site states. "It is about coming together to honor those who gave their all." I couldn't agree more.
In looking back at American history, there are millions of Americans who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in service to their nation. They are all heroes and should be remembered as such forever. Every one of those heroes, like Major Woods, also had families who paid a high cost in sacrifice and support.
While their loved one is off doing their part as a military member, they manage the homefront and do whatever they can to support their warfighting family member. To me, those family members are heroes as well. That day I spent at Arlington with the Woods family, I watched as the folded flag was presented to the family by the Air Force Honor Guard. I watched the tears fall and saw as granddaughters and great-granddaughters touched the casket of a man they had never met until that day.
Later in talks with Major Woods' daughter -- Mrs. Lana Taylor, I learned of a man who loved his family deeply and "always went when his country called." Major Woods had served more than 20 years when he disappeared, had started off as an enlisted man who served in the Berlin Airlift in the late 1940s, and was a Korean War veteran who flew KC-97 Stratotankers during the conflict earning an Air Medal.
In that same talk with Mrs. Taylor, I also remember the crack in her voice when she recalled the last time she saw him before he left for Vietnam.
"When we were in Menassas (Va.), Dad was able to come by and visit us while our house was being built," Mrs. Taylor said. "He was on his way for some survival training in Florida and stopped and visited us for a few days. At the time, I didn't realize the significance of all this."
Major Woods' granddaughter, Courtney Woods, also discussed her grandfather in a separate interview. She recalled of how fondly her grandmother, Mary Woods, talked about a man she'd never met and how that shaped her image of Major Woods as "more than a war hero."
"One thing my Nana wanted my brother Mac and me to know was what a wonderful man my grandfather was," Courtney said. "He would write to her every single day -- he never missed a single day. His letters go right up until the day he went missing. She would let us read them and by reading his words we were able to see the meaning and thoughtfulness that went into each and every letter."
Also at that funeral for Major Woods was Lt. Col. Phil Heseltine. He's not a family member but might as well have been. At that time, Colonel Heseltine and I worked together at the U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. He went to the funeral and presented a POW/MIA bracelet he'd been wearing for 18 years that had Major Woods' name chiseled into it. I went to cover the event as a military journalist.
"I purchased the bracelet in 1990 during a POW/MIA event at my Air Force ROTC detachment," Colonel Heseltine told me in an interview about the bracelet.
In attending the funeral, Colonel Heseltine brought along his wife Jenny and daughters Alexa and Livie. It was a gesture that Mrs. Taylor later said "just overwhelmed" her. When asked about his family meeting the Woods family, Colonel Heseltine said, "I'll admit I was nervous. But once they arrived and I met them I saw what wonderful people they all were."
Some of those same "wonderful" people will be visiting with Colonel Heseltine again in June 2011 in North Carolina. On June 26, the 911th Air Refueling Squadron - where Colonel Heseltine is the commander - will be dedicating the Robert F. Woods Memorial Auditorium at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base.
The auditorium dedication is another way of remembering Major Woods and his family of heroes. It also serves as a reminder to all of us that our fallen heroes like Major Woods, and their families, are the people who we should remember this Memorial Day.