Memorial Day is not a day to celebrate, several speakers told a crowd of about 200 gathered at the USS Kidd Veterans Museum and Louisiana Memorial Plaza on Monday morning.
Instead, they said, it is a day to mourn those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the nation.
“I know it gets a little confusing, but there really is no need for applause or even for celebration today because it is a day of reflection and remembrance,” said Alejandra “Alex” Juan, executive director of the USS Kidd Museum and an Air Force veteran, after she asked the dozen or so Gold Star families in the audience to stand and be recognized. Gold Star families have lost a family member during their active military service.
“For many of these Gold Star families, it is a difficult time because we are taking a moment to reflect on the lives of the fallen,” Juan said. “Neither appropriately folded flags nor the piercing sound of rifle fire can begin to address such a loss.”
Juan thanked the Gold Star families and assured them, “your relatives will never be forgotten.”
Gordon “Buck” Hawk, in his invocation, thanked God for the sacrifices made by the fallen and prayed for peace for their families.
Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden also assured the audience that the fallen veterans will never be forgotten and committed to finding housing for homeless veterans, especially Vietnam veterans. He told how a female Vietnam veteran recently related to him how her responsibility was to count the returned bodies and notify their families and the enormous stress and sadness it involved.
“Jesus said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you,’ ” Holden said, quoting a biblical passage. “To all of the veterans and their families, know that we will never leave you nor forsake you.”
Billie Jo Alexander, a Gold Star sibling and the event’s featured speaker, shared a moving account of her younger brother, U.S. Army Cpl. Thomas L. Hilbert, 20, who was killed in Iraq on Sept. 7, 2007.
“Memorial Day is every day in my life,” Alexander said. “My brother Thomas was a son, an uncle, a friend and an American soldier. I often refer to him in the present even eight years after losing him.”
She told how he had trouble in school because he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other behavioral issues.
“He lived life bigger than most would tolerate,” she said. “He feared nothing even from an early age.”
He joined the Army two months after he finished high school, in spite of the concerns of his parents who witnessed the treatment of returning Vietnam veterans, Alexander said, and became a proud Army calvary scout.
“Cavalry was his life. It fit his personality,” she said. “He’d sign his letters, ‘First in, last out, Scouts out.’”
The last time she saw him, Alexander said, was in February 2007 when he had two weeks of rest and recuperation from the war. Hilbert let his sister drive his hot-rod, and he assured the family he was always safe in Iraq in the Green Zone, although he actually wasn’t in safe zones very often.
Months later, when her mother called and said, “ ‘He’s gone — he died in Iraq,’ my whole body went numb and in that moment I felt a piece of my soul die,” Alexander said as her voice thickened with emotion.
“I fell to the floor and did the only thing I could do,” she said.“I screamed at the top of my lungs, No! Not him! No!”
An improvised explosive device detonated under the vehicle he was riding in and caused such massive damage, his casket remained closed, she said.
“There is nothing happy about today,” Alexander said. “Today is a somber day to remember those who gave their all so we can sit here and enjoy our time off. I ask you, next year bring someone with you.”
As USS Kidd Ship Superintendent Tim Nessmith read a poem, “We Remember Them,” some Blue Star Mothers of America, Chapter 7, gave out hundreds of poppies to the audience that were provided by VFW Post 3784. Audience members taped them over some of the 7,000 names of fallen Louisianians whose names are etched on the Memorial Plaza’s walls.
Claudiah Billiot, an Iraq war veteran, taped a poppy over the name of her sister, Marisol Heridia, an Iraq veteran who died in 2007.
“We get our holidays confused. It is not about barbecue. It’s all about educating the public — don’t forget our loved ones,” Billiot said. “Their legacy continues on when we speak about them. The day we stop talking about them, we forget them.”
State Rep. Darrell Ourso, R-Baton Rouge, quoted a line from a movie, “Remember not how they died but how they lived,” in his closing remarks.
High up on the outside staircase at the museum, Kent Howard played an always emotional rendition of “Amazing Grace” on his bagpipes, and John Wilbert later played a somber rendition of “Taps” on his trumpet to close the service.
“People have committed the ultimate sacrifice for our country — what an incredible sacrifice they put forth and their families put forth to defend our freedoms,” said U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, prior to the service. “We have to make sure they are never forgotten.”