A salute to heroes lost
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on May 29, 2012 1:46 PM
Monica Kornegay bowed her head moments after an image of a little boy clutching a teddy bear flashed onto the screen.
She started trembling when she saw a grieving widow draped over her husband's casket.
She cried when a lone bugler played taps.
"I come to this service every year, but it always hits me," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "I just, I don't know, I feel like I know them somehow. They feel like family."
Her sister, Kim, nodded her head.
"They belong to all of us," she said, choking up. "They died for us, so they're our brothers and sisters. We owe it to them to be here."
Hundreds of local residents felt the same way.
Members of the Wayne County Veterans and Patriots Coalition hosted their annual Memorial Day service Monday morning at Wayne Community College -- their way of reinforcing, as the organization's president, Bill Graham, put it, that "the price of freedom is great."
But 335th Fighter Squadron Commander Lt. Col. David Moeller made sure that somber moments were accompanied by bursts of pride during the hour-long program.
Memorial Day, he said, is not just an opportunity to remember those who have fallen.
It also marks another chance to honor those men and women still fighting across the world for the freedoms so many Americans have sacrificed their lives defending.
So he introduced the crowd to a few of his comrades -- three airmen stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base he believes embody the spirit forged by past sons and daughters of Wayne.
And he likened their stories to war tales that have become a part of local lore.
Staff Sgt. Ben Seekell, he said, has something in common with Pfc. Dan Bullock, a Goldsboro native and the youngest American troop killed in action during Vietnam.
"Service before self was on display when Dan Bullock enlisted in the Marine Corps," Moeller said. "Shortly thereafter, he shipped off to Vietnam."
And the way that he died two weeks later -- how he thrust himself into harm's way in an attempt to secure ammunition for his comrades -- is a sacrifice akin to the one made by Seekell last year in Afghanistan, when he was injured by an Improvised Explosive Device.
"His first reaction was to look around and ensure his team was unharmed -- not realizing that his own leg was nearly gone," Moeller said. "During a five-month recovery, he simply stated that the bad guys tried to get him, but they didn't finish the job. He would be back. Both he and Private Bullock embody the tradition of service before self."
The colonel then told the crowd about Capt. Krista Bures -- a local aviator who, like Lt. Seymour Johnson, has proven a strong dedication to professionalism, he said.
"After completing flight training, (Johnson) served as a pilot aboard battleships and aircraft carriers at a time when ship-based aviation was in its infancy and very hazardous," Moeller said. "Although Lt. Johnson's sheer number of flight hours is a testament to his professionalism and dedication, an even more telling example is the combat performance of the F4F aircraft he helped develop.
"The F4F was the primary aircraft used by the Navy in the battles of Guadalcanal, Midway and the Coral Sea. The pilots achieved an impressive 7-1 kill ratio against the Japanese due, in large part, to Lt. Johnson's professional dedication to ... making the F4F the best fighter possible."
Bures, he continued, "displayed the same professional dedication to duty" in the skies over Afghanistan last year.
A weapon systems officer, she was in the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle when more than 70 insurgents attempted to overrun a combat outpost on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
"There was not enough ammunition at the outpost to repel this attack," Moeller said. "But despite the mountainous terrain, extremely poor weather and night conditions, Capt. Bures was able to effectively employ her weapons and repel the enemy attack, while the soldiers and airmen at the outpost sustained zero causalities."
Capt. Joseph Stenger was the final airman to receive a standing ovation from those in attendance.
He, like National Guard 1st. Lt. Ashley White, has shown a desire to make the world a better place for future generations, Moeller said.
White, he continued, served to help people -- and was assigned to a unit in Afghanistan that aimed to aid the country's women and children.
"One of her friends stated, 'She simply believed in what she was doing. She wanted to take part in something that was bigger than herself,'" Moeller said.
And the legacy she left after she was killed by a roadside blast in October 2011 is one carried on by men like Stenger.
The captain, Moeller said, helped start a non-profit organization in Afghanistan -- one designed to improve the economic conditions in the wartorn country by enabling the population to sell scarves and other items crafted there.
"To date, the Afghans have earned more than $30,000 and significantly improved the standard of living in four separate villages," the colonel said. "The commitment to a larger cause is also manifested by the actions of Capt. Joseph Stenger.
"For almost 250 years, men and women in uniform have been our most powerful line against those who wish to destroy our way of life. From the actions of Lt. Johnson just prior to World War II and Private Bullock in Vietnam, to 1st Lt. White in Afghanistan and the men and women you see before you, Goldsboro and Wayne County ... have answered the call to arms with their sons and daughters. As they depart from our homes, schools and local hangouts, we are hopeful that they will come home again. But we know that some of them will not return. So it is our responsibility to ensure that those who do not return are not forgotten."