by Nathan Warner
More than 300 people came to the Memorial Day celebration at Lions Park in Elk River on Monday. The event honored the many sacrifices of the members of the United States armed forces on land, sea and in the air.
Retired USAF Senior Master Sgt. Curt Swanson, commander of VFW Post 5518, served as the master of ceremonies and introduced retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert Koehler, chaplain of American Legion Post 112 and VFW Post 5518, who delivered a prayer for those still missing in action or prisoners of war.
“Lord, soften the hearts of those who keep our comrades prisoner,” he said, “and let them hear your message of justice for the unjustly imprisoned.”
Following the prayer, local Boy Scout troops passed out flyers and flags before leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance. Vonnie Christensen of Elk River Methodist Church and Diane Pederson of St. Andrew Catholic Church sang “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Let There Be Peace on Earth,” and “America the Beautiful,” while Scott Weinard of American Legion Post 112 roused the crowd with “God Bless the USA.”
Afterwards, scout troops laid wreaths on crosses as Elk River American Legion Post Cmdr. Brian Gardner read the Roll Call of Deceased Veterans while Vice Cmdr. Mike Beyer rang the bell solemnly for each of the 22 veterans who died last year.
Christensen and Pederson sang “Go Rest High on that Mountain” as a tribute to those who have died.
In honor of the nearly 140 years since taps was officially recognized by the U.S. Army, Elk River High School student Alex Miller recited “In Flanders Fields” and a poem about taps.
Honor Guard bugler Russ Anderson played the brass notes of taps over the crowd, setting the tone as Swanson introduced the Presentation of Awards, honoring veterans and members of the community who support U.S. armed forces veterans and comrades in arms.
Betty Schneider of the American Legion Auxiliary awarded Lola Driessen the Elk River American Legion Auxiliary Americanism Award for her support of Elk River and the Elk River American Legion.
Driessen was taken wholly by surprise with the award and pulled her fishing hat down over her ears as she made her way up to accept the award.
“I obviously took my time dressing for the occasion,” she said, eliciting chuckles, “and I’m overwhelmed. I don’t know what to say other than I don’t deserve it and thank you.”
Next, Melody Shryock, president of the Elk River-Rogers VFW Auxiliary delivered the 2012 Marian Nemeth Memorial Award to member Norma Belanger for her support of veterans and the Color Guard. “Even during her battle with cancer six years ago, Norma continued to stay active in the VFW,” Shryock said, “and it is for her dedication and service that we thank her today.”
The Elk River-Rogers VFW thanked Elk River Meats owners Ron and Bob Robeck with an award for their years of service and support to the American Legion and VFW. “We really appreciate this honor,” Bob said, “and we know that if mom and dad were still with us, they’d be really happy.”
They thanked Operation MN Nice for sending their products halfway around the world in support of the troops and said the highlight of their careers was when they learned Gen. Petraeus enjoyed their meats while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Gardner delivered the final award to Elk River American Legion financial officer Dwayne Budreau. “He’s covered every position in the Legion,” Gardner said as he handed Budreau the award, “and he’s responsible for keeping the place open.”
In closing, Army Spec. and Afghanistan veteran Josh Stoll gave the Memorial Day address to the crowd, followed by a rifle salute.
“Scripture tells us that ‘Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends,’” Stoll said, highlighting two soldiers who epitomized this “supreme sacrifice.” Stoll shared how New York native Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham threw himself over a grenade in Iraq to save his fellow Marines, while in Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Dennis Weichal pushed an Afghan child out of the way of an armored vehicle, saving the boy’s life but dying in the process and leaving behind his wife and three children.
“Remembering our fallen once a year is not enough, because the widows, widowers, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and children remember every day,” he said, adding that as of that morning, more than 6,400 American men and women had died in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Many were parents,” Stoll emphasized, “and the innocence of their grieving children will be challenged by the dramatic change affecting the balance of security and comfort in their family routine. Life as they know it will be much more difficult from now on.”
He added that wounded, injured, ill, and fallen comrades of the armed forces are honored through programs such as Operation Comfort Warriors, Heroes to Hometowns, and the work of veterans and service organizations that help the men, women and children touched by the conflicts of the U.S. armed forces.
“Memorial Day is not about picnics and parades,” Stoll said somberly, “although there is nothing wrong with enjoying and celebrating our American way of life, but this day is really about remembering those who made our way of life possible — the fallen warriors who have given everything for their country.”