Despite social distancing restrictions, despite an abbreviated program and despite COVID-19 concerns, U.S. Army Col. Susan Junker (ret.) brought the meaning of the Memorial Day holiday to life through a keynote address delivered to more than 100 attending guests, as she noted 1 million service men and women have died in the line of duty, 41,000 of our nation’s heroes are recorded as missing in action and countless others have returned home, but lost the battle for life from visible and invisible injuries.
Junker began by noting that every crisis has heroes, pointing out that during the 9/11 attacks, it was first responders who demonstrated heroism. Today, she said it is the healthcare workers on the frontline battling the new coronavirus.
“These heroes have much in common with the people that we honor today … America’s fallen veterans,” Junker said. “They are men and women who have sacrificed their own lives so that others could live. They are both elite and ordinary.”
Junker said they are “elite” because of their character.
“Giving your life so others could live is the ultimate definition of selfless,” Junker said. “They are ordinary in the fact that they represent the diverse fabric of our country. They are rich and poor, black and white, male and female. They come from every ethnicity and background. In short, they looked like any one of us.”
Junker compared the frontline healthcare workers of today’s COVID-19 battle to military medics, doctors and nurses who sacrificed their lives while treating others on the battlefield.
“One such hero was Pharmacist Mate Third Class Jack Williams,” Junker said. “The Navy Reserve Corpsman was only 20 years old when he landed on Iwo Jima 75 years ago.”
Junker shared a story detailing the character, bravery and heroism recorded in Williams’ service record that occurred on March 3, 1945.
“James Naughton, a Marine in Williams’ unit was wounded by a grenade. While under intense enemy fire, Williams dragged Naughton to a shallow depression and treated his wounds,” Junker said. “Williams used his own bed as a screen and was shot four times. Yet, he continued.
After treating Naughton, Junker said, Williams dressed his own wounds and then proceeded to treat another Marine, despite his immense pain.
“While heading to the rear, he was hit by a sniper’s bullet and killed,” Junker said. “For his actions, Petty Officer Williams was awarded the Medal of Honor … Williams was one in a million.”
Junker then shared the story of U.S. Army Lt. Sharon Lane, who was described by biographer Philip Bigler as a hardworking nurse and requested to be transferred to Vietnam during the war.
Junker said Lane wrote in a 1968 letter to her family explaining her wish to be transferred: “There, at least, you are busy 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week.”
“Her dedication was obvious, even as she treated enemy Viet Cong soldiers who would return the favor by kicking, cursing and spitting at their America captors,” Junker said of Lane. “In the early morning of June 8, 1969, Sharon’s tour of duty ended. A Soviet-built rocket struck the hospital. Lt. Sharon A. Lane was killed in action at age 25 … Lane was one in a million.”
Junker said that if Lane was alive today, she most likely would be lending her skills as a nurse to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Junker noted that heroes reside in all aspects of military service, including truck drivers, cooks and administrative clerks, who have all paid the ultimate price.
“At sea, on land or in the air … military service requires great risk,” Junker said.
Then she shared the emotional and harrowing story of Roy Knight, Jr., a U.S. Air Force pilot who was killed when he was shot down while attacking a target on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos.
“He was posthumously promoted to colonel. Last year, a joint team from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency discovered and later identified Col. Knight’s remains. When his remains arrived at Dallas Love Field, a crowd had gathered to witness the dignified transfer of the flag-draped casket from the Southwest Airlines jet into the receptive arms of the military honor guard. One observer noted that the entire crowd fell silent,” Junker said. “The Southwest flight was piloted by another Air Force veteran, Col. Knight’s son, Bryan. Bryan Knight was only 5 years old when he said goodbye to his father as the elder Knight left for Vietnam … Knight was one in a million.
Junker remembered U.S. Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham, who died due to injuries received in Iraq.
“On April 14, 2004, Cpl. Jason Dunham’s squad approached a Toyota Land Cruiser. After his squad discovered AK-47s in the vehicle, the enemy insurgent exited and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the unit. The driver dropped a grenade,” Junker said. “To save his fellow Marines, Cpl. Dunham made the ultimate sacrifice. He threw himself on the grenade and tried to use his helmet to shield the blast.”
Junker said Dunham was severely wounded and was taken off of life support eight days later.
“Cpl. Dunham died so that other Marines could live. He, too, was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry,” Junker said. “Dunham was one in a million.”
Junker said that while 1 million men and women of the U.S. Military have lost their lives in defense of our nation, not all have died from enemy fire. Some, she said, perished due to illness and disease. Junker pointed out that 60 soldiers of the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment volunteered to serve as nurses during the Spanish-American War and 36 of those men would later die of Yellow Fever or Malaria.
A generation later, Junker said, the flu would kill 16,000 U.S. soldiers in France during World War I and another 30,000 died in stateside camps.
“These men and women could have isolated safely in their homes, but they knew they had an important job to do, a mission to accomplish,” Junker said. “They were all on a mission to serve.”
In closing, Junker said that whether a service man or woman died in combat or to an “invisible virus or microscopic germ,” their impact on the nation and the loss to their families is great, noting that the U.S. Military has already lost service members to COVID-19.
“Families have lost their one in a million,” Junker said. “This Memorial Day as we continue to honor those who fell for us in battle, those individuals who to their loved ones were irreplaceable … they were your one in a million … and let us also pause to remember those who have sacrificed their lives while serving others,” Junker said.