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Memorial Day through the eyes of combat veterans

Marble Falls VFW Post Commander Jeff Zak, a U.S. Army veteran, at a table set to honor soldiers who died in military service. The table is a reminder to those who made it home and can gather at the post. Staff photos by Dakota Morrissiey

Wesley Lewis pointed to a painting of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that hangs in the Marble Falls Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10376 and said, “I’ve got friends on that wall.”

The 78-year-old U.S. Navy veteran and Burnet County resident served on the front lines in the Vietnam War from 1964-68. He is one of the roughly 3.4 million Americans deployed to Southeast Asia during the war. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., lists the names of 58,279 service members who died in the conflict from 1957-75. 

Lewis sat beside friend and fellow veteran Reece Carter at a long table in the corner of the post’s canteen while he shared his thoughts on Memorial Day from the perspective of a combat veteran.

U.S. Navy veterans Reece Carter (left) and Wesley Lewis at the Marble Falls VFW. Both men shared their perspectives on Memorial Day as combat veterans.

“Memorial Day is a day of honor,” Lewis said. “It’s more than going out and putting the wreaths and flowers on soldiers’ graves.”

He pointed again, this time to a wall where the portraits of six men hang with metal plaques that detail their rank and how they died in service. They surround another plaque: All gave some … some gave all.

“Do you see the wall behind you?” he asked this reporter. “Those are all fallen military brothers. I knew half of their dads. I hope our younger people never see what Reece and I and my brothers in the military saw. It ain’t funny.”

The six soldiers are all from Burnet County. Each of them was killed in action while serving in Iraq or Afghanistan in the last 20 years. None of them made it to 30 years old.

Memorial Day falls on the last Monday in May, which this year is May 27. The federal holiday honors the men and women who have died while serving in the United States military. 

For many, the holiday marks the beginning of summer vacations and fun in the sun, which might sound disrespectful, but not to Jeff Zak, a U.S. Army veteran and commander of the Marble Falls VFW post. That is exactly what he believes people should do.

“I personally understand that people might think of it as a day off, and that is OK,” he said. “They’re taking the day off and they get a chance to enjoy the freedoms that we have. Just take a moment to realize why you get the day off, and then go enjoy yourself.”

Zak retired as a sergeant major after a 30-year Army career. He enlisted in 1999 during Operation Desert Shield and saw combat while on a tour of duty in Kuwait and Afghanistan in 2013. He also trained military working dogs used for the detection of mines and improvised explosive devices set by enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“A lot of people don’t understand the difference between Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day,” Zak said. “Memorial Day is for the people who gave the ultimate sacrifice and died for our freedoms. That day always hits a little bit more for combat veterans because we can think back to our friends, colleagues, and other people who perished.”

For Daniel Crawford, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Gulf War, every day is a memorial day for the veterans who took their own lives after serving. Crawford walked over 1,000 miles from Minnesota to Marble Falls to bring awareness to the plight of veterans struggling to get by when they return home. He began his 1,000 Miles of Gratitude walk on Feb. 3 in Austin, Minnesota, and ended it at the Marble Falls VFW Post on April 4.

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Daniel Crawford at the Marble Falls VFW after completing his 1,000-mile walk from Minnesota to Texas to raise awareness of suicide among veterans.

“For me, I work with veterans who are struggling,” he said. “Memorial Day is talking about veteran suicides. I remember those folks daily, and that’s why I walked from Minnesota to Texas.”

Crawford is partnered with the Minnesota-based organization 23rd Veteran, which draws its name from the estimated 22 veterans who commit suicide every day. He is one of the program’s success stories — the 23rd who makes it — and is now a staunch advocate for spreading its message across the nation.

“I’m that twenty-third veteran that’s gone through the darkness,” he said.

While Memorial Day is heavy with solemnity by its very nature, that doesn’t mean it must be observed in that way.

“I don’t think that the guys that I know who gave their lives for this country would sit here and say, ‘I want you guys to sit inside with the shades drawn on Memorial Day and hold a vigil and be as somber as possible,’” said 43-year-old U.S. Army veteran Jason Cullison, who fought in Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004-05.

U.S. Army veteran Jason Cullison at Numinous Coffee Roasters in Marble Falls. Cullision shared his thoughts on Memorial Day and his belief that those who died should be remembered as real people whose hopes, dreams, and ambitions were cut short in service to their country.

Cullison said to think of the people who died serving their country as exactly that: people.

“These are real people, they’re not superhuman,” he said. “They have names. They had things inside them that they were passionate about, things that gave them joy. They had hopes and dreams and aspirations that got cut really short. That’s the price they paid so that we could do those things that we love.”

All of the veterans interviewed for this story shared their belief that the deaths of their comrades should be remembered as a sacrifice for the freedoms that define the United States of America. 

“There are times in human history when the rubber meets the road, and it’s a matter of ‘who gets to say how it is?’” Cullison said. “I don’t think about the politicians. I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican. I think about the dudes out there who are at the tip of that spear and have to close (do battle) with our nation’s enemies, and sometimes, they don’t come home.”

In Memoriam

These six Burnet County soldiers were killed in combat before any of them turned 30 years old. Their photos hang in a place of honor at Marble Falls VFW Post 10376. From left to right are: 

Marine Cpl. Matthew E. Matula, 20, of Spicewood; killed by hostile fire in Iraq on April 9, 2004.

Army Spc. Jeffrey F. Nichols, 21, of Granite Shoals; died May 1, 2008, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device in Iraq.

Army Capt. Jason E. Holbrook, 28, of Burnet; died July 29, 2010, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Army Spc. Payton A. Jones, 19, of Marble Falls; died March 1, 2012, of wounds sustained from small arms fire in Afghanistan.

Army Pfc. Anthony M. Nunn, 19, of Burnet; died May 30, 2011, of wounds sustained from an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan.

Army Sgt. Mark A. Stone, 22, of Buchanan Dam; died April 28, 2008, of wounds sustained from indirect enemy fire in Iraq.