A different Memorial Day awaits us


There will probably never be a May like this one in our lifetime.

What is usually a month full of joy, celebration, and hope is now challenged by an enemy that we cannot see or hear – an enemy that knows no borders and leaves a path of death and heartache wherever it lands.

But this is Rhode Island.

The state that has a unique place in history, from the Narragansett Indian Tribe’s welcoming of Roger Williams, who was thrown out of Massachusetts, to the real start of the American Revolution, when John Brown and the boys burned the Gaspee off the shores of Warwick.

We will not let this silent monster ruin the important holidays that fall this month.

May, as we all know, is the month that we celebrate Mother’s Day, Armed Forces Day, and the solemn day that we honor our military heroes who once followed the flag and now lay beneath it – Memorial Day.

It is also the unofficial start of summer. Something that never gets old.

We all had our own plans for Mother’s Day, which was of course different this year due to social distancing and necessary precautions to keep our families, friends and neighbors safe; and Armed Forces Day, which has its own celebrations unlike anywhere else.

For instance, at the Veterans Cemetery in Exeter, a group of veterans and groups like the Patriot Guard Riders and Rolling Thunder (motorcycle riders who are all patriots, veterans and friends) conduct what can only be described as a truly inspiring, solemn and patriot event called “Echotaps,” which is held at noon.

Seventy to 100 horn players join in a solemn ceremony to honor our veterans.

The men and women line up around the World War II Memorial (which is a quarter-mile around) and situate a bugler every 20 feet.

The first bugler begins the 24 notes of “Taps” and then after the third note, the second player joins in. After three more notes, the third, until the last player joins in and they play en masse.  

What could be more touching?

Not a dry eye in the crowd.

This year, however, that solemn ceremony honoring our fallen heroes will be postponed until a later date.

Which brings us to Memorial Day.

The most solemn day that we have honoring our fallen heroes.

A day that the Great Communicator explained in the clearest of terms: President Ronald Reagan said, “We must always remember that peace is a fragile thing that needs constant vigilance. We owe them (our fallen heroes) a promise to look at the world with a steady gaze and, perhaps a resigned toughness, knowing that we have adversaries in the world and challenges, and the only way to meet them and maintain the peace is by staying strong.”

I wanted to turn to three people that I admire for their military service and sacrifice on behalf of all of us.

Three men who have inspired us by what they have done and continue to do to keep this day sacred.

Sgt. Michael Jackson

The first being the person who plays a key role in not only “Echotaps” but has been reverently honoring our fallen heroes for decades – retired Air Force Sgt. Michael Jackson.

Sgt. Jackson, one of a very small group of buglers who report to the Military Honors Program operated by the Rhode Island National Guard, has assisted in over 13,000 funerals in our state, playing “the 24 saddest notes in music … Taps.”

Unbeknownst to me, Mike was recuperating from some elective surgery when I called, but nonetheless wanted our readers to know that he would be back in uniform very soon.

As for the effect of the pandemic on our ceremonies, he said, “the world has changed, and I’m not too crazy about it.” He continued, “I feel bad for the families that had to say goodbye to a loved one while in quarantine. They couldn’t be with their loved ones.”

But to Sgt. Jackson, leaving a soldier without a proper military burial is not an option.

“As soon as I get up again, I will be at the Veterans Cemetery every day, sounding ‘Taps’ for every veteran that did not receive live ‘Taps.’”

That’s Rhode Island.

Sen. Jack Reed

I also wanted to talk to our senior U.S. senator, Jack Reed.

Sen. Reed, as most folks know, succeeded Claiborne Pell in the United States Senate. He is now the ranking member of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and is always in the conversation about potential secretaries of defense.

In fact, he has turned down offers for that job to continue serving the people of Rhode Island in the U.S. Senate.

His military service is just as exemplary.

A 1971 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point, Reed, an Army Ranger, served in the 82nd Airborne Division as an infantry platoon leader, a company commander, and a battalion staff officer. He retired from active duty in 1979 at the rank of captain, after which he continued his service in the U.S. Army Reserves where he attained the rank of major.

Jack Reed is certainly the “go-to” guy for anything related to the armed forces here in Rhode Island.

He said, “coronavirus has upended daily life and forced all Americans to make sacrifices both big and small.  It has stolen opportunities, prematurely taken loved ones, and forced us to forego community gatherings. But one thing it can’t change is the importance and meaning of Memorial Day. No virus can diminish our eternal gratitude for those brave men and women of the United States military who gave their lives defending our nation.”

He continued, “Memorial Day is a day of reflection, reverence and remembrance – a day to honor the fallen. A long line of service members from Rhode Island gave their last full measure in faithful defense of the United States. We owe them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

“As a former Army Ranger and a student of military history, Memorial Day has special meaning for me.  I often think about all the brave young men and women in the armed forces, who came from all corners of our country – from small towns and cities and from all walks of life – and the tremendous sacrifice they make to defend our freedom.

“The phrase ‘All gave some; some gave all’ echoes across generations. From Gettysburg to Normandy to Iwo Jima, and Khe Sahn, to places like Fallujah and Helmand, generations of Americans have proven there is no shortage of those with the strength and courage to serve.

“Some or our service men and women died far from home. Each of them, to their very last breath, gave their all. We salute them, thank them, and keep them forever in our hearts.

“In the words of President Kennedy, these Americans have proven their willingness to ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure survival and success of liberty.’

“To those who paid with their life and to the loved ones they left behind, we offer our most sincere and enduring thanks.”

The senator concluded with some final thoughts and wishes.

“Whatever your Memorial Day plans, please take a moment to reflect. As you spend time with family, friends, and loved ones, remember those who fought and died defending the promise of America. Even though we may be social distancing, we can still find ways to demonstrate our collective gratitude. Memorial Day was never about big parties and grand gestures. It is about remembering those we lost and upholding the values that we fought for – the ideals that unite us all. Together with grateful hearts, we renew our commitment to be worthy of their profound sacrifice.”

Father Bob Marciano

And finally, I wanted to talk to Father Robert Marciano, affectionately known as “Father Bob.”

Father Bob is the pastor of St. Kevin and St. Benedict churches in Warwick, and president of Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick.

Father Bob is a retired lieutenant colonel and chaplain of the Rhode Island Air National Guard and was the “Chief of Chaplains” at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., administering the duties of over 330 chaplain assistants from all different denominations of the Air National Guard.

When I talked to him, I asked if he was asked to head the coronavirus task force. Why not? He does everything else.

In typical Father Bob fashion, he told me that they called but he told them he was too busy!

I think he also moonlights as a comedian.

But his message was solemn and holy, as I expected that it would be.

Father Bob is also one of the most reverent priests that I have ever met.

He said, “Each year, as summer dawns, our nation pauses to reflect, to honor and remember those who have served this nation in the military. This year, given these challenging times, we are called to be ever more vigilant in our prayers and efforts to honor the heroes who have come before us and who left these shores for heavenly ones.  How can we ever repay the debt that is owed to those who have served and taken their last breath, many of them on the fields of battle, to be sure that our lives would be free.

“The millions that are at rest in cemeteries here on our soil and on foreign soil, some in watery graves, are never forgotten, not on this (Memorial Day) weekend, nor any day of the year, and make us proud to follow in their footsteps to hold aloft the same flag that they held as a beacon of justice, hope and peace for all the world to see.

“Our nation’s currency is engraved with the proud words, ‘In God we Trust,’ and no more fitting words can we find in these challenging times to reflect on the past and place our hope in the Divine Providence of a God who gave us this great land between the seas.

“Chapters of bravery and courage have been carved in our past by the men and women of our military and their families who stood with them, and on this coming Memorial Day will stand silently over them in prayerful remembrance.

“As our nation faces this invisible and often deadly enemy we know that as Americans we are fit for the fight for we place the armor of goodness and faith and forge ahead to a new dawn where viruses flee to the pages of the past.

“May the God of peace grant eternal rest to our fallen and our departed, and may their noble souls find a place in heaven where heroes gather and receive their rightful reward.

“May God continue to bless and guide America … the land of the free, because of the brave.”

Beautiful and inspiring words.

A Warwick resident, Mike Levesque is a former mayor of West Warwick and writes a monthly column for the Federal Hill Gazette.


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