A hometown boy who devoted a career to the military, and who came back home to serve as superintendent of schools, reminded his Memorial Day audience Monday morning of the meaning of the holiday.
“Service means sacrifice, even when the sacrifice is one’s own life,” said Steve Lanier, standing before the Three Servicemen Statue Detail that graced Veterans Plaza in Apalachicola.
“The purpose of Memorial Day is to memorialize the incredible sacrifices made by these incredibly brave men and women and our veterans over the history of this country,” he said, noting that more than 1.1 million Americans have been killed in all United States wars. “When you think of the sacrifices these men and women made so we could live in a free country, it is very humbling.
“Many of our fellow Americans may not fully understand the significance of what Memorial Day is for; that is why it is important to have memorial events like this one,” Lanier said. “It is up to us to continue to always make Memorial Day one of the most important holidays of the year. It is a time to reflect on our nation’s heroes, to pay tribute to them, to remember them, and to thank and appreciate them.
“For all those men and women who died for our country, I always think how brave they were. They paid the ultimate sacrifice, dying for our country,” he said. “I can’t imagine what those Americans and even some of you in attendance today may have been thinking when you left the United States and headed off to the two world wars, were part of the D-Day invasion in Normandy, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the Battle of Okinawa, the Korean War, Vietnam War, Desert Storm or Afghanistan.”
Two of the county’s oldest surviving veterans of those wars – Charles Scott from World War II and Oscar Medley from Korea – were on hand to be introduced by retired Marine Maj. Al Mirabella, commander of American Legion Post 106.
Lanier paid tribute to the namesake of the post, Apalachicola native Willoughby Marks, an Army first lieutenant who was killed in World War I’s Meuse-Argonne Offensive in Oct. 1918.
“During this battle, Lt. Marks was severely wounded but refused to leave his company before achieving its objective,” he said. “He then heard that his best friend, 2nd. Lt. George Hollister, was lying wounded outside of a trench.
“Under intense enemy fire, Lt. Marks rushed to save his friend when high-explosive shellfire struck and killed both of them,” he said. Marks is buried in the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery along with 14,246 other American soldiers.
Lanier opened his remarks with a moment of silence to remember the 19 students and two teachers killed last week at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and the 10 men and women who were killed in the Tops Supermarket in Buffalo, New York two weeks ago.
“What happened in Uvalde and Buffalo as well as other schools and cities around our country should never happen. My heart goes out to those victims, family members, and those communities,” he said.
Lanier focused on the gratitude he feels for having served. Later in the program, Scott, the longtime chaplain of the post, outlined the differences between Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, which remembers those who died serving the country; Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, which focuses on those currently in uniform; and Veterans Day, Nov. 11, which honors those who served the country.
“Think about what is happening right now in Ukraine. Every night when I watch the news it makes me realize how fortunate I am to be an American and to live free and in this great country,” Lanier said. “I think about how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to serve and work alongside some of the most patriotic Americans in the world. But what I am most awed about are the brave servicemen and servicewomen that came before me to make all this possible.
“One of the best things about having served in the Air Force and Navy is to hear someone say, ‘thank you for your service.’ That means something every time I hear it,” he said. “If I meet a veteran, I always make it a point to thank them for their service. There is a special comradery that we share with each other, a brotherhood, a sisterhood, a bond of friendship, respect, and understanding of what we did while we were supporting and defending our country.
“While I was on active duty, I had the good fortune to be stationed in two foreign countries, Germany and Okinawa, Japan. Even though I was not part of the wars and battles that took place so many years ago in those countries, I was humbled to see where history took place, to be able to walk on the hallowed ground where our brave men and women died and pay tribute to our veterans who put it all on the line for their love of country and our freedom,” Lanier said.
The well-attended event, blessed with a sunny morning, featured brief remarks from Jimmy Mosconis, the Vietnam vet and longtime county commissioner who championed the creation of the Veterans Park more than a decade ago, on former city trash site land at the foot of the Orman House State Park and Chapman Botanical Gardens.
Mosconis had just returned from a visit to the Vietnam Wall in Washington, where the original Three Servicemen Statue stands, on the occasion of a wartime encounter 53 years ago. Mosconis had been Jan Scuggs’ platoon sergeant in May 1969, and was instrumental in saving his life from shrapnel wounds. Scruggs would go on to be the force behind creating the Vietnam Wall, and worked closely with Mosconis in securing the only replica of the Three Servicemen Statue, made from the original molds, anywhere in America.
Mosconis described a lengthy stretch, hundreds of feet long, filled with pins, letters, cards and other memories of the names on the wall. “You have to see it to appreciate it,” he said.
Mirabella said the post plans to champion an effort to better publicize the presence of the statute, to place signage at the entrances to the county, especially with the numbers of visitors who served during the war.
“Let people know it’s here,” he said.
He also recounted a talk he had with Sheryl Haynes, a volunteer at the Orman House Historic State Park, who was seated atop a maintenance vehicle in the audience.
Haynes had just read an article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about her grandfather, Lt. William Haynes, who had returned home to Georgia after World War II and later retired to Panama City.
Haynes had piloted a Liberator bomber in the South Pacific and watched as a sister plane was shot down.
After this aircraft was struck, and an engine exploded, Haynes ordered excess equipment thrown overboard for a water landing. After making it back to the base, the bomber crashed into an embankment near the runway. Haynes suffered broken ribs in the crash and others had shrapnel wounds, but there were no other serious injuries.
Sheryl Haynes said she learned these details for the first time after reading the article. She said she had two other uncles who served in World War II, one missing in action and the other a prisoner of war.