CAMP NELSON — Like many headstones throughout Camp Nelson National Cemetery, that of Army veteran Russell Lee James’ was decorated with a small American flag and flowers. And his hat, which read 199th Infantry Brigade, sat proudly on top of the headstone. His widow, Ann James of Nicholasville, sat in a lawn chair watching and remembering on Memorial Day.
“He served in Vietnam when a lot of people took the easy way out and went to Canada,” she said. “He felt like it was his duty to serve his country.”
In another part of the cemetery, the family of James Thomas Lake also paid their respects to the Navy veteran.
“He was proud of his service,” grandson Aaron Falin said.
James and Falin were two of the nearly 300 people who showed up to decorate graves, remember and cry for loved ones on Memorial Day.
Keynote speaker U.S. Army Retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Yerks’ focused his address on sacrifice as the crowd that gathered listened during the hot, cloudless day.
As a light breeze blew cross the cemetery, Yerks spoke about how sacrifice began hundreds of years ago.
“Back in 1775, our soldiers performed really the first battle of our not yet declared country on the Lexington Green in Massachusetts,” he said. “Capt. (John) Parker stood with about 75 rag-tag soldiers, and he faced about 600 British regulars as they advanced. And as they raised their rifles in preparation to fire, Capt. Parker shouted to his men, ‘Don’t shoot unless fired upon, but if they want war, let it start here.’ That was the first of the bloodshed that we’ve seen up until now.”
Yerks spoke of his father’s stories. The elder Yerks was a World War I sergeant major, who, along with his fellow soldiers, braved the harsh conditions in Europe during the war.
“Under adverse conditions, never faltering until they met their objective,” Yerks said.
As a young officer in Korea, Yerks had to take over his company following the combat-related death of Lt. Ed Davis.
“I was green, inexperienced and I didn’t know what I was doing,” Yerks said. “Five days later, my men accomplished the objective.”
Later, the regimental commander, Col. Dick Stillwell, wanted to recognize the company, and the next day, Yerks assembled the company for Stillwell.
“Stillwell showed up, and he said, ‘Bob, I said the company.’ I said, ‘Sir, this is my company.’”
Yerks’ company went up that hill in Korea with more than 160 men; 47 returned.
“That’s sacrifice,” Yerks told the crowd. “That is why we’re here today ... to honor that sacrifice.”
Modern warfare has expanded, and Memorial Day should also reflect the service of public service personnel in the post-9/11 world, Yerks said.
He told the story of a Vietnam veteran Rick Ricardo who, on Sept. 11, 2001, was a businessman on the 42nd floor of the south tower of the World Trade Center.
“He had a cell phone, and his wife was pleading with him, ‘Please honey. Please get out.’ He said, ‘No dear. I have to take care of my soldiers,’” Yerks said.
“The tower collapsed, and he was still sacrificing for his soldiers,” Yerks said. “Again, that is what we’re here for today.”