Honoring the fallen

Published 8:00 am Sunday, May 29, 2011

Local veterans reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day

Veterans Norm Hechimovich, from left, Brad McBeain, Scott Wiechmann and Mel Flicek are all very active in Memorial Day in making sure veterans are remembered. - Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

To many, Memorial Day is one of the first times of the year they can fish, grill out, throw parties and forget about day-to-day tasks. But for former and active military service members, it’s much more.

With the abundance of Austin service men and women, Memorial Day essentially will be a military family get together, and it unites veterans and active members of all generations. But if somebody asked any military members about the holiday, they’d probably say it’s about their fallen comrades, not themselves. Many of those local service members have seen combat deaths first-hand, so they will take Monday, May 30, to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice and celebrate the freedom for which they’ve fought.

Years of service

To local Scott Wiechmann, the military has been a huge part of his life, so Memorial Day is special. He said before he served, Memorial Day was just a three-day weekend. That’s changed.

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Wiechmann has served for 17 1/2 years and spent time in the Army, Army Reserves and now the National Guard, much of that spent on active duty overseas. His wife has served, his daughter is in the military, and his father-in-law was a military policeman for 30 years. Through his years in the service, he’s lost friends in combat. And with his ties to different military branches, he’s sympathetic to them all, especially Vietnam War veterans.

“We have it a lot better than the Vietnam vets when they came back,” he said.

Wiechmann has seen how families are affected just as much.

“Their loved ones back home, they don’t have them,” he said. “They have watching the news, and waiting.”

This Memorial Day, Wiechmann will help raise the flags at the veterans memorial, march in the parade, and make the rounds to each area cemetery.

Wiechmann is just one of many in the community who will celebrate Memorial Day’s true purpose.

Memories live

Austinite James Decker is a Marine Corp. veteran. He spent seven years serving in Panama, the first Gulf War and Somalia. He remembers those he served with who died.

“It’s hard to leave them behind,” he said. “You don’t give up your friends. It stays in your mind forever.”

Though he’s served with some who died, he sees Memorial Day as a time to honor everyone who served.

“There are other men that came before us,” he said.

On Monday, Decker will raise the Marine Corps flag at the veterans memorial. He will also march in the parade, and his girlfriend — a member of the Ladies Auxiliary — will toss the wreath at the bridge.

After the ceremonies, Memorial Day doesn’t end for Decker. He and many others will travel to Mankato to say good-bye to local National Guardsmen who are being deployed. Furthermore, his girlfriend’s daughter will leave for the Marine Corps on July 10.

New meaning

Many younger service members are taking the day seriously, as well.

Nathan Lee, a member of the National Guard, recognizes the importance of the holiday. He’s seen it from both perspectives, as he saw it as just a day off before he was in the military.

“People want to party and go fishing. … They don’t actually acknowledge the day. It’s more of a day to them just getting out of work,” he said.

Lee doesn’t take that approach anymore.

“Generally, we take the day to remember some really good buddies in the service that weren’t able to come home with us,” he said. “I can get together with some really good friends in the service.”

Lee entered the military because it was something he always wanted to do. He looked up to service members before him, he said. Now, after about 10 1/2 years of service, his perspective on life and respect for others has changed. But that change started long ago.

“Your ideas on life, how you want to act, completely change overnight,” said Lee, who has been deployed several times.

Lee, who still has a little more than a year with the National Guard, will also see some of his buddies before they deploy on Monday from Mankato — after he attends the flag ceremony in the morning in Austin.

Visitors, guests welcome

Another young man from Austin who will join Lee in the flag-raising ceremony is Brad McBeain.

McBeain spent nearly six years in the Army, one of which stationed in Iraq. Now a veteran, he spends time with members of the VFW and recognizes the military family around him.

“I think for the most part, everybody knows everybody,” he said about service members around Austin.

McBeain’s respect for military runs deep. He said almost every male from both sides of his family has served in nearly every military conflict since World War II. He, too, has lost friends in the service, of whom he’ll be thinking about on Monday.

“There are people who don’t get to experience the BBQs and parties on Memorial Day because they gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he said.

Among his Memorial Day plans, McBeain will also march in the parade. Although some forget what the day is about, McBeain said he has seen pretty strong support in Austin.

On Friday, McBeain, Wiechmann and other vets were selling Buddy Poppies for the VFW. All proceeds go toward the VFW, much of which helps longtime members pay their dues if they can’t afford them.

To many military members, the VFW is not only a place to remember their comrades, but to meet new ones, including those who never served in the military. McBeain encourages anybody to visit the VFW and meet some of America’s heroes.

“People don’t have to be a member of the VFW to come down,” McBeain said. “If they just want to come down and socialize, anybody is more than welcome to come down and show their patriotism.”

Memorial Day military honors begin at 6:50 a.m. Monday with a flag raising at the VFW and American legion in Austin. The parade will begin at 8:30 a.m.