In the 150th celebration of Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, the Arbovale community and Arbovale Cemetery Association continued its tradition of honoring the memory of Veterans and community members.
United States Air Force veteran and Commander of the Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps Rick Wooddell was the guest speaker during the event and spoke about the history and significance of Memorial Day.
“Memorial Day was originally called Decoration Day, a day that was set aside to decorate the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers,” he said. “On the first Decoration Day, which took place on the thirtieth of May, 1868, General James Garfield – who would go on to become our twentieth president – made the first Memorial Day speech at the Arlington National Cemetery while five thousand participants decorated the graves of the twenty thousand Union and Confederate soldiers buried there.”
While Memorial Day was founded to specifically honor veterans, it soon became a day to remember all those lost over the years. In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day and in 1971, Congress declared that Memorial Day would become a national holiday celebrated on the last Monday in May.
Wooddell shared the list of casualties suffered by the United States from conflicts beginning with the Civil War, which remains the deadliest war in American history with an estimated 620,000 American deaths.
“Our nation has paid a very steep price for the freedoms that we enjoy today,” he said. “Casualties from U.S. involved conflicts include World War I – 116,500. World War II – 405,400 people and a side note to my research for this, I found out that the 1940 census for Pocahontas County had a total population of 14,555 people. Of that population, 2,106 were called to service between 1942 and 1945 – fourteen percent, one in every seven persons went off to war.
“In the Korean War, we lost 36,500 men,” he continued. “Vietnam – 58,200; and since Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, deaths in the Middle East area of operation are, approximately, 8,000 dead.”
The fighting continues, Wooddell pointed out, stating that there are several operations underway, with some that began in 2001 including Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation New Dawn, Operation Freedom Sentinel and Operation Inherit Resolve.
“The wars never end,” he said.
To honor the sacrifices made by the men and women who served the country, the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment – the oldest active duty infantry in the Army, which is also known as the Old Guard – place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery the Thursday prior to Memorial Day. This practice began in the early 1950s and continues today.
Following suit, the Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts of St. Louis, Missouri, began in 1951 to place flags on the 150,000 graves at the Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery. They also continue the practice to this day.
“For over thirty years, Harold and Betty Ruth Crist placed flags at our own Arbovale Cemetery and now the Greatest Generation has passed this honor to the new generation,” Wooddell said. “The Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps also takes great pride in placement of flags in more than forty cemeteries throughout Pocahontas County every year to honor the veterans.”
As Wooddell reflected on the history and significance of Memorial Day, he said that in a way, the day serves as a homecoming – a particularly special part of his own past.
“While growing up as a military brat and living on bases up and down the east coast, homecoming was two things – stopping at the Kac-Ka-Pon [Restaurant] in Wardensville to eat and then staring at the lights at the Matheny’s Store when we made a left hand turn in Green Bank to get to Granddad’s house,” he said. “All those years – and most of the arrivals were almost always at night to our ancestral home – but it was a very special place to come to.”
Homecoming is a theme for Memorial Day to Wooddell because we all go home to honor the memories of our loves ones and it is at home when you feel the safest – a feeling given to us by the sacrifices of service men and women.
“We have all gathered here on this day to welcome each other home,” he said. “Today we gather to extend our hearts and our hands to receive and welcome one another in honor of Memorial Day. This homecoming occasion is not only an observance of Memorial Day, but it is a true celebration that is dedicated to the memory of those who are not with us today and to each person in this room. When you are here, you are home. The Arbovale community is a place created where we can all gather to celebrate life, love and God.”
As he encouraged the audience to honor their loved ones as they enter the Arbovale Cemetery for the continuation of the ceremony, Wooddell remembered those near and dear to him.
“We are forever in awe of the 417 veterans who are interred here and whose memory we honor at this time with the placement of flags at each gravesite,” he said. “When the flags are placed each year, I give thanks to my great uncle Clyde Wooddell who served during World War I and probably died a premature death due to mustard gas exposure while serving in France. To my father, Harold Wooddell, and his two brothers, Will and Jimmy, who in total gave fifty years of service to the United States Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force from World War II to Vietnam in service to their country.”
He also recognized members of his wife’s, Renae Crist Wooddell’s family, including her maternal grandfather, Fred Conrad, who served in World War I; her father, Harold, who served during World War II and has been a member of the Honor Corps for 20 years; her uncle, Gene Crist, who served during the Korean War; her uncle, Hubert Conrad, who served in Vietnam; and her brother, Mike, who served during the Cold War.
In closing, Wooddell returned to the main theme of Memorial Day – Never Forget.
“As we spend time with family and friends enjoying the great outdoors and warm weather on such a special day to start the summer season, let us never forget the courageous men and women who have served and sacrificed so much so that we could enjoy this holiday,” he said. “In honor of this historic Memorial Day, I leave you with the following – on the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veterans behind.”
The Arbovale Cemetery Association recognized those interred in the cemetery in the past year as part of the ceremony before those in attendance were dismissed to the cemetery for the Pocahontas County Veterans Honor Corps 21 gun salute.
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For more than 22 years, Rick Wooddell served in the Air Force, fulfilling many different roles. His longest term of service was spent as an instructor pilot for both the T-37 and C-5 aircraft.
Throughout his military career, he served tours in various locations, including Homestead Air Force Base in Florida, Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, with his final tour of service at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.