Roswell Remembers: Memorial Day 2016

There was pomp and reverence, sadness and joy during Monday’s Roswell Remembers Memorial Day observance, a yearly event that has drawn as many as 8,000 to the picturesque downtown of this Fulton County city.

The Atlanta Wind Symphony provided patriotic medleys. Graying members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars handed out silk poppies. And thousands of celebrants sought shade from the brilliant 90-degree sun beneath the towering pines and hardwoods behind the Roswell City Hall complex.

As U.S. Congressman Tom Price led the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, three-year-old Harper Sorrells recited the words along with the group. “She’s just learned it,” said her proud mother Natalie Sorrells, who showed Harper a monument to Roswell’s fallen from World War II.

“There were some soldiers who died,” she told the little girl

“Because they were looking for the bad guys?” Harper asked.

“Yes,” said the mom.

Of the ceremony, Sorrells, 33, said “I love it. I woke up this morning and everyone wanted to go to the pool, but we decided to come here instead, and we’re glad we did.”

Retired Major Gen. Ronald L. Johnson, senior staff officer of the Corps of Engineers and a professor at Georgia Tech, filled his keynote speech with poetry, reciting “In Flanders Fields,” a poem that famously exhorts the listener to do his part, or those who lie beneath the crosses and tombstones, row on row, will never rest peacefully:

“If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.”

In plainer words, Johnson told the group “If you say you support vets, you have to act like it. What you say and what you do have to be consistent.”

An emblematic poppy in his hand, Lt. Joe Ferrell, a Viet Nam vet, was doing his part. Ferrell sought support for the North Fulton Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which spends its efforts helping veterans file claims to find the help they need. He also promoted the charity golf tournament at BridgeMill in Cherokee County that will raise money to buy Christmas presents for the children of active duty soldiers.

“We don’t have bingo, we don’t have a bar,” said Ferrell of the post he commands, “so all the money we raise goes to help veterans.”

It was a day of pride, but also pain. Audience members learned of Spc. Brian Portwine, who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2006-2008 and in Operation Enduring Freedom in 2010. When his Bradley fighting vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device in 2006, he told his mother he felt like “God Himself had kicked me in the ears.”

Peggy Portwine said her son's traumatic brain injury contributed to his PTSD, and that he took his own life in 2011, one of an estimated 18 to 22 service members who commit suicide every day. Portwine entreated the audience to remember those whose injuries are deadly, but invisible, and to keep the suicide prevention hotline (1-800-273-8255) close at hand.

The solemnity of the occasion was underscored when Roswell native and former U.S. Army Ranger Grant McGarry placed a wreath at the Faces of War Memorial at the center of the shady park.

But it was also a time of reunions and rejoicing, of old soldiers celebrating the fact that they were still vertical and on the north side of the grass.

“He won the war in Europe and I won the war in the Pacific,” said Jim Mehornay, who fought with the 3rd Marine Division at Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima.

He was gesturing to his buddy, Richard Gambino, who hauled around a water-cooled machine gun as part of Patton’s 6th Armored Division in Normandy and Alsace-Lorraine. The two 92-year-old men sat peacefully on a golf cart, waiting to get shuttled home.

How did Mehornay and Gambino survive the terrible fighting? “I never got up!” said Mehornay. Said Gambino, more thoughtfully, “I wonder about that every day.”