MANAHAWKIN – As the years go by, it is important to remember that the end of May doesn’t just signify family barbecues, summer sun, and beach traffic; it also recognizes the many sacrifices made by our American heroes on Memorial Day.
On the lawn of the Southern Regional High School (SRHS), facing Route 9, local VFW groups, students, teachers, and residents gathered to honor our American soldiers and veterans with the “Field of Flags” and a Memorial Day ceremony on May 25.
Southern Regional High School takes time each year to prepare this unique tribute to our local heroes by planting American flags across the field. The “Field of Flags” tradition was begun by district employee Marilyn Doherty many years ago. The tradition was later partnered and carried on by SRHS teacher Jean Piscopo.
“Jean was key to making this year successful,” said Colonel Joseph Potts, also a member of the SRHS community and leader of the ceremony.
This year, the lawn saw 6,952 flags, one flag for each life lost fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ceremony began with a presentation of colors by the SRHS Air Force JROTC and a flag salute led by Cadet Evan Brown. The SRHS band and choir also provided a rendition of the national anthem.
“Today, and this Memorial Day weekend, is a time to remember those military men and women who ‘gave all’ and died in service to our country,” said Potts.
Of the 6,952 flags on the field, “Three flags have a very personal meaning for our Southern Regional family,” said Potts.
Three of the flags not only represent three military lives lost, but also three Southern Regional graduates, including:
- Class of 2005 graduate and Army Specialist Kareem Khan, who was killed in action in Iraq in 2007.
- Class of 1964 graduate and member of the US Marine Corps, Lance Corporal Walter Horner, who was killed in action in Vietnam in 1967.
- Class of 1978 graduate and member of the US Navy, Arthur J. Platt, who was killed in a military plane crash.
Khan’s flag is centered between Horner’s and Platt’s flags, positioned near the flagpole that stands in the middle of the Field of Flags.
“These three men paid the ultimate price for freedom…this community will not forget them or what they did for us, they will live on in our memories,” said Potts.
The flags not only represent the individuals lost in battle, but also the families that were impacted by the loss as well. “For each military loss, there are 10 people on average that are significantly impacted,” Potts added.
The ceremony also made sure to honor those American veterans still living today.
“This country would not be what it is today without your contributions and selflessness in defending our liberty and our nation’s interests,” said Potts to all the veterans in the crowd.
Present at the ceremony were members of the Barnegat VFW Post 10092, including Past Commander Frank Healey, as well as members from the Stafford VFW Post.
These VFW members were honored with echo taps, a tradition performed when a military person is killed in action, performed by the Southern JROTC.
Also in attendance were members of the Stafford Township Council. Councilman Alan Smith has another title: colonel. He spent 37 years in the US Marine Corps on both active and reserve duty, according to Potts. Enlisting in 1967, Smith served as a corporal in Vietnam and a colonel in Iraq.
Smith remarked that the echo taps tradition makes it hard “to not tear up.”
“Freedom is not free,” said Smith. “On this day we pay tribute to soldiers, sailors, airmen, coastguardsmen, and marines; those who pay the high price for our freedom.”
Smith recognized the bravery and unwavering responsibility to protect and serve for the “American way of life,” stating: “They faced the bullets.”
Smith read a passage on behalf of all military personnel, describing actions performed throughout history from places like Vietnam to Iwo Jima, and to more modern conquests where they “turned back the tides of ISIS.”
“They brought laughter to children around the world, they brought hope to better those who lived the lives of despair…we owe a debt that cannot be measured,” said Smith.
And the way we pay that debt is to honor them for the sacrifices they made for us to live as we do today.
Freshman Cadet Madison Brown provided a brief history of Memorial Day, explaining that it was originally called Decoration Day.
Following the approximately 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers that were killed during the Civil War, families from both sides mourned and honored the deaths of their loved ones by decorating their graves. This was the beginning of what we now call Memorial Day.
The ceremony closed with the placing of a memorial wreath in honor of Kareem Khan, near his flag. Kareem’s mother and father were in attendance and accompanied three uniformed graduates of SRHS in commemorating Kareem’s life with the decorative wreath.
If you drive by Southern Regional on Route 9 before Tuesday, May 29, you can see the Field of Flags tribute for yourself, waving proudly for those they represent.