Retired 1st Sgt. Jesse France introduced Lt. Col. James Okeke at Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony in Pembroke as an officer of “many assignments and sterling service.”
Okeke said no assignment was harder than when he was tasked with having to notify the next of kin of a soldier killed in battle as a casualty assistance officer.
“I tell you, it was the most difficult thing I ever did,” said Okeke, a former enlisted soldier commissioned in 2000 as an infantry officer.
Now a battalion commander stationed on Fort Stewart, Okeke was guest speaker during the ceremony at the Flanders Morrison Funeral Home chapel. It was hosted by Pembroke American Legion Post 164 and the city of Pembroke.
Okeke said he learned as a casualty assistance officer it can be hard to comprehend the level of loss Gold Star families face, and the important thing is to remember the fallen and learn their stories.
“Every day, take a moment to say thank you to the fallen and for those servicemembers who have never left the battlefield,” Okeke said. “We must hold them up in our home towns and honor their memories.”
He spoke of Pembroke’s 1st. Lt. John G. Bacon, killed in September 1951 in Korea, and Marine Staff Sgt. Joel Dameron, killed by an improved explosive device in August 2005 in Iraq. Dameron’s mother, Doris Mercer, attended Monday’s ceremony.
“To the families of the fallen, we are humbled by the significance of your sacrifice, and I commend the courage and fortitude that you demonstrate,” Okeke said.
He noted that more than 1.1 million servicemembers have been killed in America’s wars dating back to the country’s beginning – “more than the population of the city of Atlanta,” Okeke said – and another 2.6 million were wounded or are missing.
“Those numbers should keep us honest, as they represent our husbands, brothers, sisters, wives, mothers, fathers and friends,” he said. “I challenge you to know each Gold Star family’s personal history. You’ll be astonished at the levels of true heroism you’ll find.”
After recalling the sacrifices made by recent Medal of Honor winners Staff Sgt. Travis Atkins and Pfc. Ross McGinnis, who in separate actions gave their lives in Iraq to save fellow soldiers, Okeke said one way to “keep the memories of the fallen” is to support Disabled American Veterans, a group which has helped than 1 million veterans through four wars.
his remarks by paraphrasing former President George W. Bush, saying “all Americans
and every free nation on earth can trace their liberty to the white markers of
places like Arlington National Cemetery.”
He then added, “I challenge you to keep our military families close to your soul, now and always.”
During the ceremony, attended by approximately 40 people, including Pembroke Mayor Judy Cook and former Mayor Mary Warren, American Legion Post 164 Chaplain David Cone said the invocation and closing prayer. Calista Cox sang the National Anthem and a 3rd Infantry Division honor guard attended and played taps. Pembroke Girl Scout Troop 30079 gave out programs and placed flags and helped set up the city’s Memorial Day tribute through placing flags at Northside Ceremony.
France ended the ceremony by saying, “a loss is hard to overcome, I don’t think we ever overcome it.”
“Even if we don’t personally know these people, we’re brothers and sisters,” he said. “No matter which generation it was, no matter which war it was, we’re all connected by God, and that’s how he designed it.”
The event was held inside because of the heat, which reached more than 100 degrees. Some of those who attended stopped by the flag and cross display in downtown Pembroke.