By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 1, 2010 1:46 PM
Bill Graham, left, president of the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition, and Bill Carr, chaplain, North Carolina Military Order of the Purple Heart, sit off to the side of the stage in quiet reflection during the Wayne County Memorial Day Ceremony. Nearly 300 people attended the event at Wayne Community College to honor those who have served and are serving in the armed forces.
For much of Monday morning, Judith Olsen kept her face in her hands -- hiding swollen eyes and wet cheeks from the hundreds who turned out to honor the fallen at Wayne Community College.
But when an image of a grieving widow pressing a folded flag to her chest flashed onto the large screen just ahead, the 67-year-old allowed those seated around her to see her tears.
"There's no shame in being sad for those women who lose a man to war," she said more than an hour later. "But sometimes, those of us who haven't lost like that feel the need to be strong, I guess."
Earl Vinson didn't.
"Some say a man shouldn't cry, but that's hogwash," the 56-year-old said, showing off the damp handkerchief he said was "perfectly dry" when he walked into Moffatt Auditorium just before 11 a.m. "Look around you. I doubt there was an eye in here that stayed dry the whole morning."
A record crowd was on hand Monday to honor those who have served, and those who died serving, in the armed forces.
And for many of the veterans who helped organize the event, the near-full house came almost as a shock -- many have said they were disappointed by all the empty seats during Memorial Day services in previous years.
"You being here means so much to all us guys who served," retired Marine Bill Carr said to the crowd.
Keynote speaker Joe Marm agreed.
"Each of you is special in my eyes," he said. "And I know many of you have your own stories to tell."
Like members of the Lane family, who came to honor Bobby "Bud" Lane, the beloved son and brother killed in Vietnam.
And Gail Hargrove, who lost her young husband, Joseph, in the same war.
Marm, too, had a story to tell.
But those who know the retired Army colonel were not surprised that he held back -- that he didn't detail that firefight along the Ia Drang Valley that saw him earn a Medal of Honor after taking a sniper's bullet through the chin Nov. 14, 1965.
Instead, Marm used his address to give a history of Memorial Day -- to paint a picture of what is left behind when a war fighter makes the ultimate sacrifice.
He told a story about a younger Joe Marm -- the little boy at a military funeral long before he, single-handedly, charged an enemy stronghold wielding an M-16 to ensure better odds for those under his command in the jungle.
"I noticed that an old soldier ... stood tall and proud ... as if he were in a different time and place," he said, adding that as the names of the fallen were being read, the man began to cry. "I always thought war vets ... were the toughest guys around."
But then Marm, years later, returned from Vietnam and attended the funerals of several of his men, he told the crowd.
"I understood how that old soldier felt," he said. "I had become one of those veterans haunted by the memories of the most intense period of our lives."
As his remarks neared their end, Marm thanked those who showed up for the program.
And he urged them to set their watches to 3 p.m. -- to stop what they were doing and hold a short, silent vigil at that time for those who never made it home.
"It is a small token of an enormous debt owed to them," he said.
And he left them with the dying words of his commanding officer, Lt. Henry Herrick.
"He said, 'If I have to die, I'm glad to give my life for my country.'"
Hours after the crowds had dissipated, Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition president Bill Graham was among those gathered inside the American Legion headquarters -- the simple construct where the annual Memorial Day service is planned; where the weekend of remembrance traditionally begins.
He talked about just how much it meant to see so many people forgo a day at the beach to honor those sons of the county, and country, lost before their prime.
"It was something," he said. "I've never seen that many people out there."
But for Graham and others, repaying the debt owed to the fallen is a process that never ends.
So at 3 p.m., hours after he and his comrades first gathered inside a place most call a second home, they stood as two buglers performed "Taps" during the national Memorial Day parade.
They hadn't forgotten about Marm's request.
But the truth is, they didn't really even need to hear it.
They honor the fallen every day.
"Today, as a nation, we hold (our comrades) especially close," Marm had said. "God bless those heroic men and women."