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Americans should honor their fallen this Memorial Day

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Let it be known that he who wears the military order of the Purple Heart have given his blood in the defense of his homeland and shall forever be revered by his fellow countrymen. — Inscription on Purple Heart medal

May 25 is Memorial Day. This celebration is the annual call for all Americans to honor their military dead. Every year, I devote a column to the millions of America’s husbands, fathers, sons, wives, daughters and friends in all our wars who gave their lives defending our country. But I believe Memorial Day should also include veterans who did not fall on the battlefield, but died as civilians years later.

There are two such heroes I wish to mention.

The first is Queens’ Gary Schiller of Little Neck. Although he died in 1999, he is still remembered as one of the most decorated soldiers in the country. His story must be told.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;⁄For he to−day that sheds his blood with me⁄Shall be my brother .... — William Shakespeare, “Henry V”

When I began my column 18 years ago, I was assigned to interview Schiller, who had been chosen as the grand marshal of the Douglaston Memorial Day Parade. I was impressed with the little man, with a multitude of medals dangling from his chest. He asked me to join the parade when he learned I was a Korean War veteran. When the marching was over, we sat down and talked.

In peace, sons bury their fathers. In war, fathers bury their sons. — Herodotus

Schiller was born in Brooklyn during the Great Depression and quit school to help support his family. When World War II broke out, he was drafted and became a highly decorated combat soldier.

Above all, Vietnam was a war that asked everything of a few and nothing of most in America. — Myra MacPherson

Schiller was severely wounded by shrapnel while storming the beaches of Normandy in France, during the initial invasion of Europe. He was sent back to the States for recuperation.

No person was ever honored for what he received. Honor has been the reward for what he gave. — Calvin Coolidge

Months of rehabilitation followed and he was given a medical discharge. But Schiller never forgot his fellow veterans. He embarked on a crusade, visiting the sick and wounded in every city VA hospital and attending the funerals of those who succumbed. At his death, Schiller was given his own, well−deserved final salute.

[T]he very obsession of your public service must Duty−Hon­or−Count­ry. — Gen. Douglas MacArthur

Another highly decorated war hero, and a Medal of Honor recipient, was a quiet, charming man whom you and many children may remember as “Mr. Rogers” of TV fame. Not known by many, but this pacifist was a combat−proven, U.S. Navy Seal in Vietnam, with more than 25 confirmed kills to his name. He was a master in small arms and hand−to−hand combat and was capable of disarming and killing in seconds.

Uncommon valor was a common virtue. — Adm. Chester Nimitz

Following the war, Rogers became an ordained Presbyterian minister. He vowed never to harm another human being and dedicated the rest of his life to leading his young audience toward a kinder, friendlier life. Before appearing on TV, however, Rogers made certain he hid his tattoos and violent past.

Incredibly, most military heroes shun publicity. They merely melt into the crowd, marry, have children and go about their lives. But we should never forget them.

The nation which forgets its defenders will itself be forgotten. — Calvin Coolidge

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every American made an effort to visit a military cemetery on Memorial Day and during their lifetimes? Observing the rows of crosses and Stars of David of fellow Americans, male and female, young and old, all buried without regard to rank or branch of service, is a patriotic duty and the least you could do to show your gratitude for what they gave you. It is an experience you will remember forever.

As humorist Shel Silverstein wrote: “I will not play at tug o’war.⁄I’d rather play at hug o’war,⁄Where everyone hugs⁄Instead of tugs,⁄Where everyone giggles⁄And rolls on the rug,⁄Where everyone kisses⁄And everyone grins,⁄And everyone cuddles⁄And everyone wins.”

May these words come to pass. Peace!

Reach Alex Berger at news@timesledger.com.

Posted 6:35 pm, October 10, 2011
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