27 May 2009

Memorial Day: Tribute to Two 1st Lieutenants

I wrote this past Monday, Memorial Day, and posted this to my Facebook notes. Today, I was looking at it again and realized more. This was about two 1st lieutenants in the USAF, yes. But it was also about two different wars, two different eras, two people of different genders. Here's the column:
Today is Monday, 25 May 2009 --- MEMORIAL DAY in the United States of America.

Today is not just any day. This is Memorial Day, when much of America just shuts down in remembrance of our fallen and wounded soldiers. This means the stores are closed --- no running off to buy eggs or milk or Pepsi. So today is a day the convenience stores get a little extra business. On the way home from work I was served notice to pick up something from the convenience store. It's raining cats and dogs as I stopped in St. Louis at Gravois and Weber Road. As I began to leave in the downpour that had been overhead for nearly 30 minutes, I saw myself and all the rest of traffic being stopped for a funeral procession. In all honesty I did not know for another 25 minutes that the procession was for 1st Lt. Roslyn Schulte, killed in action in Afghanistan this past week. To say that the procession was long would be an understatement. That is a good statement, actually. I would rather that she be remembered by hundreds, if not thousands, MORE St. Louisans. Lt. Schulte was a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy, a native St. Louisan who joins around five-thousand U.S. military personnel on the deceased list since the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Her death is not being taken lightly by most people, I would imagine --- but not all are following the news of another local member of the military having died --- sometimes we get caught up in our daily lives and don't hear the names and reflect upon their role in combat or even hear of their death. Please realize that we are talking about a HUMAN BEING. But in this case it's a special human to Americans: this is a fallen soldier being buried ON Memorial Day.

Yesterday, we visited Jefferson Barracks National Cemetary in south St. Louis County. I mentioned to the occupants of the vehicle in which I was riding that I was given a privilege to cover the re-interment of 1st Lt. Michael Blassie as a reporter. It remains one of my most poignant memories, not just as a reporter, but as a resident of the United States of America, because of the nature of the services. Lt. Blassie was killed during the Vietnam War, 11 May 1972, and his remains were returned to the U.S. unidentified. Later, in 1984, his remains became interred at the TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER at Arlington National Cemetary as the Vietnam War's Unknown Veteran. This happened before there was such a thing as DNA evidence which helped to identify the remains of soldiers who had died in combat. The military had gathered Lt. Blassie's belongings near the area the military thought was his crash site, but due to the difficulty in positive identification of the 1972 crash, his remains were listed as unknown up through his 1984 burial and until 1998, when the evidence was reprocessed and he was positively identified. My role was as an observer --- as a reporter, I was given an assignment to gather the moment and file a couple of reports to my local radio station and to the ABC Radio Network. Later that evening it sunk in how special my day was to be: I had one of the lead stories in the national news that July 1998. But moreover, I was given a duty and helped Americans hear a story that needed to be told. It is still a source of honor for me to have been given the opportunity to cover his re-interment.

Other than the commonalities that both were 1st Lieutenants in the U.S.A.F. and St. Louisans, today I was able to bear witness to one of the most impressive things that the military can do to honor their fallen comrades: the jet flyby. I was home this time, just a few hundred yards from where Lt. Schulte was being laid to rest --- and this time I was not covering the story for the news. However I felt the same chills as the jet flew overhead. It is that chill which makes me realize I am free because of the service by these two individuals who by all accounts could have led extraordinary lives had they lived beyond their military years.
I hope that when I pass an Air Force 1st Lieutenant next time I recognize them and their rank and thank them. You see, I think that way because I have come to realize it could be that person being buried the next time I witness the flyby.

Thank you, heroes.

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