By Dennis Minich
Sometimes things which could be pretty ordinary become extraordinary. Saturday was such a day.
On my calendar was the Memorial Day observance in Adrian. Given the rains and thunderstorms Friday night, I would not have given much of a chance for the event to occur and even if it did happen it would be muddy mess.
Saturday morning could not have been more in contrast to Friday night with bright blue skies hosting beautiful benign clouds, a breeze just right to push the flags out to attention without becoming an annoyance. The memorial park was striking and the crowd was poised for the somberness of the event.
Like most Memorial Day observances, there was some patriotic music, some flags, the three-volley gun salute and the playing of “Taps.” While always inspiring, there was even more on that beautiful Saturday morning.
I think the first spine tingle came following the national anthem when three girls, ages 4 to 13 stood in front of the gathering and sang all of the verses of “Amazing Grace” a capella. The young ladies, Maggie Jacobs, Claire Newkirk and Mattie Newkirk, proved to be a tough act to follow.
Next up was the keynote speaker, retired Col. James McDaniel, Jr. I had awaited his presentation since interviewing him last week. I knew there would be stories about the return of his father’s remains after 68 years of being listed as MIA in Korea.
I knew there would be some emotion when he talked about a father he barely knew. And knowing that McDaniel was a military chaplain, I assumed there would be some religious overtones.
What I did not know was how the entire speech would carefully weave all of those topics together with a simplicity and grace.
For example, he shared, “As a little boy I never got the chance to grieve much. As a 70-year-old man I can.”
He also shared the insight, “It’s not just about this country, it about other countries. South Korea has the sixth-largest economy in the world. It is the largest Christian nation in Asia. If it weren’t for my father and all of the others who served in there, today it would all be North Korea.”
He also shared a story which demonstrated this philosophy. While going through the process of receiving his father’s remains, he met the woman who is in charge of the agency which works to identify remains of service people returned to the United States.
She had helped identify his father. McDaniel said one day while standing in line to eat he was speaking with her and she said she was South Korean. Her father had been a Christian in North Korea where Christians were persecuted.
During the war when U.S. forces were being evacuated from North Korea, ships were being filled with soldiers and Marines. They also took as many refugees as possible. Her father was one of those refugees.
McDaniel finally expressed appreciation for the efforts to find his father’s remains.
“We kept looking for 68 years. I appreciate the president for meeting with the leader of North Korea and for asking for a sign of good faith,” he said, adding, that’s how the 55 boxes of remains, which included his father’s, were returned home.
After his remarks, the POW/MIA remembrance was performed. I have seen it twice before, but I don’t think it had ever struck me quite like it did after hearing McDaniel’s stories. For those unfamiliar, a table for one is set. Items including a rose, a lemon, candle, salt and an inverted glass are placed on the table as a symbol of the one who is missing from the assembly.
Afterward I had the chance to speak to McDaniel. He offered me the opportunity to hold his father’s dog tags, the item which had helped identify his remains. They were mostly intact, including part of the original chain, from 1950. He then told me we will be a guest at the White House next month at an event celebrating Gold Star families where both the president and vice president are expected to attend.
As I said earlier, sometimes ordinary events become extraordinary. My words cannot describe the feeling those in attendance shared Saturday morning. I have no words to express how I was touched by the 55-minute ceremony. But I will carry with me the sights and sounds of Saturday morning. It was like getting to observe a piece of history and seeing the sacrifice of others. It was what Memorial Day is supposed to be about.