Thursday, May 31, 2012

MEMORIAL DAY: Burdens, honors and brotherhoods

Steve Robertson

Above: Changing of the guard. Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Arlington National Cemetery. Washington, D.C.

Children kneel in front of a World War II veterans' memorial at Lake View Cemetery near Calumet, Mich. on May 28, 2012.

Members of the Marine Corps League Keweenaw Chapter 1016 rehearse the rifle salute before a Memorial Day service at Forest Hills Cemetery in Houghton, Mich.

Marine Corps League member Bob Botkins grabs a cord on the United States Marine Corps
flag while setting it up before a Memorial Day service at Forest Hills Cemetery in Houghton,

Every war veteran ceremony that Frank Steiner IV remembers, an eagle has flown over.

"It's amazing," Mr. Steiner said. "It's a spiritual thing, you know?"

Mr. Steiner is a member of the Marine Corps League, Keweenaw 1016 chapter. He honors memorial services and ceremonies with fellow Marine Corps. League members at veteran memorials and funerals, including the Memorial Day burial ceremony of a Korean War soldier who was previously declared MIA for 61 years.

On Wednesday, Mr. Steiner traveled to Houghton to honor the original date of Memorial Day, May 30 at Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park. There were veterans of wars from the Korean War to the current war in Afghanistan.

   Frank Steiner IV talks with Joe Tormala before the May 30 Memorial Day services at
   Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park in Houghton, Mich.
The veterans trade stories about their deployments and trade advice about navigating a variety of veteran service programs for health and wellness issues. While the day is meaningful to veterans in honoring their fallen comrades, it also aggravates bad memories that they have worked through their lives since to get past. The veterans relive a sense of the comraderie that they experienced in their old units.

Korean War veteran James Moehrke said he vividly remembers his role in the war. He was in the 19th Ordinance Direct Support and participated in Operation Glory, recovering dead soldiers from battlefields, and Operation Big Switch, a mass exchange of prisoners of war.

"We had to go out and get the corpses off the field," Mr. Moehrke said. "And boy did they reak. Oh, boy. Did you ever hear of the Black Death over there? The rats would feed on the corpses and the mosquitos would bite the rats. Then the mosquitos bit you and if you had contact with this virus, you had about 10 days to live. There weren't many people who made it past 10 days."

The Marine Corps League, like other veterans associations, rotate duties between members for each ceremony. The ceremony honored a plaque commemorating veterans of the global war on terrorism, including the Iraqi War.

   Veterans pick up spent blank rounds after a rifle salute during a Memorial Day service
   at the Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park in Houghton, Mich. on May 30, 2012.
The plaque also listed two names of Copper Country natives who were killed in the war, including staff sergeants Paul Johnson, of Calumet, and Thomas Christensen, of Atlantic Mine.

Mr. Johnson, 29, was a squad leader in Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment in the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was killed Oct. 20, 2003 during a mounted patrol when the vehicle he was in hit an improvised explosive device near Fallujah.

Mr. Christensen, 42, was killed Dec. 25, 2003 when his unit's living area came under a mortar attack in Baquba, Iraq. Also killed in the attack was Staff Sgt. Stephen C. Hattamer, 43, of Gwinn, Mich.

Shortly after the blessing of the plaque, nine M-1 Garands were fired three times in cadence to honor Mr. Christensen and Mr. Johnson, along with all of the fallen soldiers.

Mr. Steiner, among other veterans, celebrated two memorial days in three days. Memorial Day, which used to be called Decoration Day, originated after the American Civil War to commemorate Union soldiers who died. Sometime in the 20th Century, the holiday was extended to memorialize all American soldiers who have died.

Congress enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act on June 28, 1968 that rescheduled four holidays, including Memorial Day, to a specified Monday, to create a three-day weekend.

Soon after the ceremony, Mr. Steiner and Iraqi War veteran Joe Tormala — who was wounded in the same attack that killed Mr. Christensen and Mr. Hattamer — spotted a bald eagle soaring.

"Again," Mr. Tormala said, watching the eagle. "It's amazing that this has happened after every ceremony. It really makes you think about what's out there spiritually — you just don't know."

The sighting invoked an experience Mr. Tormala's mother, Mary, had at a Native American Memorial Day service she attended. 

In a service for Spc. Robert Voakes, a 21-year-old Native American soldier who was killed June 4, 2011 in Afghanistan's Laghman province, Mary saw three eagles soaring and circling over the service. Two of the eagles, she said, swooped down and landed in trees near the service, uncharacteristic to their natural behavior of avoiding humans.

"Isn't that amazing?" she said. "It was amazing."
   Marine Corps League Keweenaw Chapter 1016 member Paul Smigowski stands at-ease during a Memorial Day service at Hancock County Veterans Memorial Park in Houghton, Mich. on May 30, 2012.


  1. very good article , you are very talented in what you do , keep up the good work.

  2. Nice article Adam, thanks for remembering Memorial Day.

  3. Dear Adam.
    Very moving pictures and well written story.

    Update: Frank Steiner IV drowned on Aug. 3, 2012 in Woodbury,CT. He lived his life with integrity and dignity. Our sympathy goes out to his immediate family, extended family and many, many friends.
    Sharon Sherman, Woodbury, CT

    1. Sharon,
      Thanks for sharing. I rode with Frank to these services and had many fun conversations with him. He was very honest, prideful and fun to be around. He will be missed.

  4. Frank Steiner IV, mentioned in this article, passed away this week. Way too young, my friend has moved on to a palace in the sky where no demons lurk, where every tear is wiped away. Good bye old friend, until it's my time to join you. Semper Fidelis.

    1. John,
      He was a great man and will be missed.