Honoring the honorable

Hundreds gathered midmorning Monday at the Grand International convention center in Minot, to honor America’s military personnel of the past, present and future on Memorial Day.

Two separate ceremonies had originally been planned for, an 8:30 a.m. flower scattering at the Eighth Street Bridge and a 10:30 a.m. Memorial Day service planned at the Rosehill Cemetery soldiers plot. Due to inclement weather the two were merged and quickly relocated to the hotel.

The master of ceremonies was Arnold Havelka, a concurrent lifetime member of the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, American Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars groups.

“Thank you for being here,” he told the audience, well surprised at the turnout despite both the rain and last-minute change of venue. A rough counting of heads indicated there were at least a few hundred men, women, and children gathered together for the occasion. Havelka was also pleased to see younger adults in attendance. “It’s always good to see a few out here.”

An Advancement of Colors ceremony was undertaken by the color guard of the 5th Bomb Wing, and guards from Minot veterans organizations and their auxiliaries. This was followed by the national anthem, which was sung by Airman 1st Class Stephanie Ashley of Minot Air Force Base.

Speaking at the event was Col. Max Mitchell, vice wing commander of the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base. A master navigator with the Air Force, 138 of his 3,700 flying hours were spent in combat.

“We take this time to remember those who have gone before us and served, and those who serve now,” he told the room. “Never forget the past lessons we have learned. We strive very hard not to relearn those lessons over again.” He noted that relearning such lessons carries a human cost.

“How do you serve honorably?” the colonel asked. Honor was the major theme of his message, particularly that as embodied by the military’s core values. While each branch of service has its own way of codifying these, in the Air Force those are integrity first, service before self, and striving for excellence in every endeavor. “All those things add up in our minds to resiliency,” said Mitchell, a quality which in turn builds character in service personnel and helps them learn to cope with adversity.

“What do we offer them?” The military provides “food, clothing, shelter, uniforms,” as well as educational benefits. “We will train them and give them those kinds of things,” said Mitchell, adding that “to do that, we ask that they conform to our way of thinking.” In a voluntary military system, he said that personnel are asked to serve honorably and without reservation.

“You do not hear very often about those that serve honorably,” said Mitchell, referring to a recent scandal within the Air Force regarding sexual assault. “A vast majority serve honorably. That’s what we ask for them to do,” he had said, having to pause for a spate of applause.

He also touched on the topic of mental strain and the personal disorders servicemen are susceptible to. “We are very aggressive about handling those problems,” Mitchell stressed, emphasizing the roles resiliency and community support play in mitigating these.

For many of the 4,900 airmen and their 6,000 family members there, Minot may be the first assignment of their careers, and a supportive community goes a long way in making the transition comfortable. “We rely on a lot of our base agencies to make them feel at home, away from home,” but the backing of the community is also needed in order to accomplish that. In his 24 and a half years of service, Mitchell said “I’ve never seen a better community, more supportive, than Minot.” This level of support, he says, can only “help them to serve honorably.”

“Never forget those who came before us, never forget those who currently serve, and never forget those who will serve,” he said in conclusion.

Following Mitchell’s address, American Legion Auxiliary president Delores Walhood and another member performed the laying of a memorial wreath to the sound of taps, as played by Randy Kramer of the VFW honor guard.

“Let us never forget that freedom isn’t free,” the chaplain, Louis McLeod, said in his closing prayer. The colors were then retired, concluding the program.

Asked how long Minot has been observing Memorial Day each year, post quartermaster for the local VFW Wayne Paulson said he believes it to have begun around the same time as the community’s VFW first organized, in 1921. “I’d say it goes back that far.” Spending two years in the Army during the Korean War, since 1974 Paulson has served in a variety of VFW positions, including as its national inspector general.

Havelka explained that Memorial Day as a tradition dates back to the years following the Civil War, to remember its unprecedented number of American dead and wounded. Virtually every community was in some way affected, even those in the then-Dakota Territory. “I don’t know how many of you know, but at Rosehill we have three Civil War members.”

On that topic, he added that “Rosehill right now is working on a project,” to replace the fencing of the softball field adjacent to the cemetery. They are currently taking donations, which can either be send through the mail or dropped off at its office at 700-11th Ave. SE.