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12 former service members to honor this Memorial Day

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In honor of Memorial Day, Military Times asked several lawmakers and administration officials to talk about who they will be remembering on the holiday. Here are their reflections:

** Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, a Navy Reserve and Air Force Reserve veteran

“On Memorial Day we often forget Americans who gave the last full measure offering a helping hand to those whose own world had disappeared.

“On panel 1W Line 121 of the Vietnam Wall is the name of just such a man: Master Sgt. Denning Cicero Johnson. He was 36, a husband, father, medic. He was one of the last Americans to fall in Vietnam, on April 4, 1975.

“He was rescuing orphans whose lives were in danger as the North Vietnamese approached Saigon. Operation Baby Lift rescued 2,000 children on the orders of President Gerald Ford. While Johnson was tending to the children in his care, the C-5 he was on crashed into a rice paddy outside of Saigon.

“Seventy eight children died that day. Fifty Americans perished. A father and friend was lost that day but his life was testament to the American spirit. Ronald Reagan said it best — Heroes come when they are needed, great men step forward when courage seems in short supply. Denning Johnson was both a hero and a great man.”

** Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., an Army veteran and ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee

“There are many incredible men and women that come to mind when I think of our fallen servicemembers, but this Memorial Day I want to especially recognize the life and service of 1st Sgt Thomas E. Thayer from Louisville, Ky.

“Sgt Thayer was a tremendous man that I knew growing up in the Boy Scouts. He was my scoutmaster and taught me so much about leadership and responsibility. Sgt. Thayer died while serving with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam. He received a Silver Star in 1965. I will never forget his courage and bravery. Rest in peace, scoutmaster.”

** Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who served with the Army National Guard in Iraq

“Every Memorial Day, I think about Brian Slavenas who was a first lieutenant in the Illinois National Guard and flew helicopters out of the unit based in Peoria, Ill. Brian and I were young officers who served at the same time. He and his crew were killed when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down in 2003 near Fallujah, Iraq.

“For me, Memorial Day is about honoring the fallen and the guys from the Illinois National Guard like Brian who never made it home. It’s about honoring the people who continue to serve time and again, giving everything in defense of our country. And it’s about honoring the families who continue to send their sons and daughters to stand up for this country.”

** Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., who served with the Army in Afghanistan

“When I hear the slow hum of Taps and the crack of the 21-gun salute this Memorial Day, I will think of many friends — warrior brothers like Army Sgt. 1st Class Lance Vogeler, who was killed Oct. 1, 2010, just a few weeks after he worked to save my life when I was injured.

“Lance was killed on his 12th deployment. He left behind his wife and three children whom he loved more than anything in this world and spoke about all the time.”

** VA Chief of Staff Pamela Powers, Air Force veteran

“On this and every memorial day I honor my brothers and sisters in arms who have paid the ultimate price for freedom and reflect on the grieving families and friends they left behind. In particular, I remember my Air Force Academy classmate and friend, Marine Lt. Col. Kevin Shea, who was killed in action near Falluja, Iraq on Sept. 14, 2004. Kevin cross-commissioned into the Marines after graduation and was assigned to the 1st Marine Regiment Division when he died.

“Kevin was a gentle-giant, a humble leader, a great Marine and just a great guy. He left behind a spouse, two children, parents, siblings, and friends, all who feel his loss greatly. Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams once said that ‘So many times in our history . . . we have paid great tribute to veterans who serve, which certainly is appropriate, but for whatever reason, we forget the families who lost that loved one.’”

“So on this memorial day I remember and honor Lt. Col. Shea and all of those family and friends that he left behind.”

** Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee

“As we honor the fallen this Memorial Day, I am keeping one particular veteran in my thoughts — Cmdr. John Scott Hannon.

“After serving 23 years in the Navy as a member of the SEALs, Scott Hannon retired to his home state of Montana where he received treatment for his invisible wounds of war while helping other veterans find their own paths to recovery. Like too many of our veterans, Scott eventually succumbed to those wounds and died by suicide on Feb. 25, 2018.

“One veteran life lost to suicide is one too many. This Memorial Day, we should redouble our efforts to provide more veterans with life-saving mental health care.”

** Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who served in the Army National Guard in Kuwait and Iraq

“As a combat veteran, Memorial Day is always personal for me. It’s a solemn reminder of the courageous sacrifices made by our fallen brothers and sisters in uniform. We honor all those from Iowa and across the country who answered the call to protect and defend our great nation, and especially those who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

“Specifically, I think of Army Spc. James C. Kearney III of Emerson, Iowa, who was a member of the Iowa Army National Guard and was killed in the line-of-duty in Afghanistan. I also think about Army Sgt. James Lyn Skalberg, who also called Emerson home and paid the ultimate price for freedom serving his country on active duty in Afghanistan.”

** Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Pa., who served in the Air Force

“I’ll be thinking of my grandfather, Capt. Jack McDonald. He was born in South Dakota and attended school in a one-room schoolhouse at the base of Mount Rushmore. He graduated from UC Berkeley under the GI bill. In the Navy, he was a P-2 and P-3 pilot.

“He fought in the Korean War and went on to serve our nation for 30+ years. My grandfather raised seven children and was a very proud grandfather and great-grandfather. For me, he modelled how to live your best life in service, how service can change one and one’s country for the better.

“He and my grandmother, Edwina, his wife of more than 50 years, are buried together in Arlington National Cemetery. We have a tradition of leaving a state quarter on their graves whenever any of our now very large family visits their graves.”

** Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Air National Guard veteran and chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee

“Several very special service members remain always in my heart. My college buddy, Jackson Elliott Cox III of Waynesboro, Ga., died a proud Marine in Vietnam. And Noah Harris of Ellijay, Ga., who joined the U.S. Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks while he was a student at the University of Georgia, made a difference in my life and in the lives of many others before he was killed in an IED attack.

“Jack and Noah are just a couple of examples of the service members who inspire me.”

** Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., an Army veteran and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

“While I remember all service members on Memorial Day, I am especially keeping Johnny Marler of Jenks, Oklahoma, in my thoughts. Johnny left school at 19 to serve his country in Vietnam. While serving as an Army medic, his unit encountered an overwhelming enemy force. Johnny immediately went to the aid of a wounded soldier and saved his life. He was written up for a commendation medal, but the award letter was never delivered.

“I met Johnny earlier this year when I was honored to present him with the Army Commendation Medal with ‘V’ device for his actions on that day 50 years ago. Johnny passed away in April, but I’ll never forget his patriotism and humility that spoke to a lifetime of service, even after he retired from the Army.”





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