LAFAYETTE — Army Capt. Tom Groth, in a heartfelt speech Monday at the Memorial Day service at Fountain Memorial Funeral Home and Cemetery, called for improvements in health care for veterans.
“I have in my pocket a challenge coin that says, ‘Remember the 22,’ ” Groth said. “We are losing 22 veterans every day to suicide. We have an all-volunteer service. If we don’t take care of our veterans and treat them with the best health care when they come back, how can we expect people to continue to volunteer for the military? We have to do a better job.”
Groth spoke to more than 200 people who gathered at Fountain Memorial to pay tribute to the fallen soldiers in U.S. military conflicts. Jillian Hebert sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” while a bugle played the military songs for all service branches.
“Back in the first World War, (John McCrae) wrote ‘In Flanders Fields’ as though it were coming from his dead friend,” said Edward Abell, master of ceremonies.
The poem, in part, reads: “We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders fields.”
And now, Abell said, “It is your duty and mine to carry the torch.”
The first Memorial Day was celebrated in 1866 in Waterloo, New York — current home to the Memorial Day Museum. Each year, family members across the country lay flowers on the graves of the more than 1.3 million U.S. servicemen and servicewomen who have given their lives in combat.
“We’re gathered here this day to remember the honor, the courage and the sacrifice of so many who have gone before us,” said the Rev. Weldon Moak, of First Baptist Church in Broussard.
“We thank God for creating these brave men and women and instilling in their hearts the integrity and honor they willingly gave so we can stand here today free and without fear. May we never forget what they did for us.”
Groth remembered taking trips to the local commissary at Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans, watching his uncles spit-shine their shoes and wear poppy pins on their lapels.
Groth served in Vietnam and mentioned several of his friends who did not return from the war. Among the war dead from Acadiana is Youngsville High graduate Steven Logan Bennett, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in a fighter jet during Vietnam. A plaque honoring Bennett’s memory is displayed in front of the Cajundome.
“Steven Logan Bennett’s plane was shot up and he knew he couldn’t land it,” Groth said. “He couldn’t eject, so he landed in the water knowing he would not survive. I would be willing to bet that very few of our UL students have ever looked at that plaque.”
Groth quoted former U.S. President James Garfield, who spoke at the 1868 Memorial Day service at Arlington National Cemetery.
“ ‘We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke: but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.’ ”