From the death of United States Air Force Master Sergeant Michael Heiser and 18 other service members in the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996, to the passing of 19 service members in 1983 during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada, Memorial Day remembrances in Flagler County seemed to touch every generation, resonating with attendees of all ages at events across the community on Monday.
Flagler Beach Hits All the Right Notes
A recurring Bible verse – John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” was repeated throughout the day’s trio of services across Flagler County.
It was during the intimate ceremony in Flagler Beach that the message broke open the emotional dam, resonating deeply with listeners.
Hardly a dry eye could be seen in Veterans Park as US Army Major Tom Hall shared the heartbreaking story of his brother’s rescue as a young medical student in Grenada, alongside hundreds of other American citizens during Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.
The lives of 19 service members were lost during the rescue mission and as the students wrote to the families of those killed, and received replies, it was the response from a Gold Star family that brought Hall to tears during the Memorial Day ceremony on Monday.
It wasn’t the rescue itself, but of being worthy of the noble sacrifice, for the senior Army instructor of the Matanzas High School Junior ROTC program.
“He and the rest of his classmates were rescued by the Army Rangers who jumped in the island that morning,” recounted Hall.
“Following Urgent Fury, my brother and most of his fellow students wrote letters of sympathy to the families of the 19 service men who made the ultimate sacrifice during Operation Urgent Fury. Most of them did not expect to receive a response from the families. However my brother was sent a letter from the family of a Navy SEAL who died during the operation, parents of that individual.”
“The letter reads in part, “Dear Steven, Thank you for your kind letter. Although we miss him every day, we’re proud of our son. He did what he thought was right. If he had known in advance this would cost him his life he would not have hesitated. Please lead a good life and his sacrifice would not have been in vain.”
“On the one year anniversary of Urgent Fury Steve and some of his fellow students were privileged to be called to Washington D.C. to meet with President Reagan to honor those who gave their lives in Grenada. As part of that visit they all went to Arlington to pay their respects to those who fell during the conflict. Sean Luketina of the 82nd Airborne was one of the 19 fallen heroes. My brother and his classmates watched as Sean’s father laid a wreath at his son’s grave. Holding back the tears, he later thought about the 15th chapter of John, verse 13 which reads, “Greater love no one than this, than to lay down a life for one’s friends”. Which brings me back to the central question – where do we find such men and women?”
Quoting President Reagan, Hall continued.
“We find them where we’ve always found them. In our villages and our towns, our city streets, in our shops and on our farms,” he said.
“As we honor our nation’s fallen heroes this day, you can be filled with a sense of pride as young people in our community are continuing that legacy.”
As is tradition, a poem selected by the Flagler Woman’s Club was read by Flagler Beach City Commissioner Jane Mealy, soft-spoken as she read the words to “The Fallen” by Randall W. West, for the second time that day.
“Each Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day we read a poem and dedicate it to them,” said Mealy. “I think it’s great. It shows that we all care and remember the people who enable us to live the wonderful lives that we live.”
Closing on uplifting note, Flagler Beach City Commission Chairman Ken Bryan announced the official unveiling of the Veterans Park bench project including the installation of bronze engraved placards featuring the names of veterans.
“We planned it so we could do it that way,” said Bryan of the Memorial Day launch.
“There’s a lot of significance to the benches. When you come to the park it’s nice to see the monument, but now you can put names and associate them with the monument itself. It pulls it all together.”
All eyes took to the hills as Flagler Beach City Manager William Whitson, whose father served multiple tours in Vietnam, played TAPS, with a special accompaniment by Dr. Rodney Harshbarger. A U.S. Navy veteran, the pair crossed paths in December during the First Friday school showcase and he was humbled by the invitation to join Whitson for the ‘Echo TAPS’ performance.
“I was so honored when the city manager asked me to play it, because I’ve not played it before. I was so pleased to be part of it,” said Harshbarger.
“We found the story in history that the Union buglers sounded TAPS after they had been fighting all day and then the Confederate bugler answered across the James River. It’s just a touching story and something I wanted to pay honor to for our ceremony today,” said Whitson.