BEFORE AND AFTER WEBBERVILLE
Before I went to Webberville, Michigan, several significant soldiers had already impacted my life. After all, both of my parents served in the military during World War II. It was in Washington, D.C. that my mom from Michigan who had become a pharmacist’s assistant in the Navy met my dad from Florida who had proudly served in the Army Air Corps for five years.
Our childhood was influenced by their patriotism, as well as their pride and dignity for having faithfully served our country. We were taught to honor and love our American flag and embrace nationalism. My parents, two significant soldiers in my life, reflected the WWII era and shaped my worldview.
The next significant soldier served in a very different time in our history with a contrasting spirit. When my bridegroom and I returned from our honeymoon in 1969, we opened the life-changing letter drafting him into a most unwelcome role as a soldier. He was humiliated as Basic Training stripped him of his former life, his freedom and his hair, shaping him into a most reluctant soldier. Filled with anguish and fearful of the outrageous “police action” in Vietnam, he enlisted for another year to avoid going to war.
In my parents’ home their generation’s patriotism was confronted by our generation’s desire to defy the country’s involvement in a detested war. Rather than soldiers’ returning coming home to the healing balm of 25 years’ previous prideful patriotism, their neglected spiritual wounds became infected with the nasty germs of that tragic era.
Over the past three decades family members have enlisted and even given lifetime service in our country’s military. Observing their decisions is like recognizing when others are speaking a foreign language, completely unfamiliar, and I confess, minimally valued in spite of my parents’ involvement. Increasing cynicism about our government’s questionable military actions in recent years has been firmly solidified with my resistance to this extended war in Iraq.
Seeing soldiers in the airport caused feelings of sadness and a vague sense of lack of comprehension. I don’t get it. Why? Why are you risking your life?
But that was all before. Before I went to Webberville and encountered another significant soldier in my life.
The veils of cynicism began to fall from my eyes as Denny pulled into Webberville High School and I saw the billboard. “In remembrance of Staff Sgt. Gregory McCoy, Class of 1998" the sign proudly declared. Instantly I noted the scruffy looking group surrounding the sidewalk – each holding a large American flag. I was informed that they were the Patriot Guard Riders, veterans who ride motorcycles to memorial services to provide support and prevent demonstrations against the war at this most inappropriate place. We were led to a designated room for the family to gather; given a red, white, and blue ribbon framing Greg’s picture to wear; and reunited with the extended family. Kleenex was distributed, but I was confident that I would not be emotionally moved, so I foolishly declined.
Soon the officiating pastor led us in prayer and we followed into the gymnasium as the colors were being presented by the ROTC high schoolers. Their sharp uniforms could not conceal their young, fresh faces. I breathed a sigh of relief that the original plan of using the small, local VFW hall had been changed to this large room with filled bleachers, a stage with Greg’s helmet and rifle at the center. Three television cameras greeted us as we turned down the aisle of chairs for the family.
An hour-and-a-half of words followed. Tributes by a high school teacher and a close childhood friend, as well as, reports from Greg’s chaplain in Iraq and his military service were presented. The words of “Amazing Grace” were beautifully sung.
With one exception, it was not the words that struck me most. It was the continual visual images projected on the large screens – Greg throughout life’s stages; alone and with his parents and sister; in the midst of family celebrations or vacation; going to Prom and graduating with his class of 61 students; and then with his own family – snuggling up to his young wife, playing with his little sons; finally, in Iraq. Over and over the images were presented until I felt I had a genuine glimpse of this engaging young man.
Then two things happened which confronted my aloof cynicism. One was Lori’s own words, amazingly mature for the young widow and mom. Here they are:
"One question has been put before me time and time again in the past week. That question is "Do I support the war?" Although my answer was the same every time, I have felt that I did not fully explain why I answered the way I did.
While we were in Germany, my husband told me that if he didn’t get the opportunity to deploy, he would not re-enlist. He felt like he was not able to use his training and found himself looking for a way to fulfill that uncertainness inside of him. Deep down, I knew that deploying was what it would take for Greg to feel like a real soldier. When that opportunity was before us, I was excited for him. He was going to do what he wanted to do and felt their mission was justified. I could not imagine him not being able to participate in something he felt was his duty.
Though I worried about him, I knew that he and his unit would do everything possible to ensure their safety and I will never forget the moment of his return from his first deployment. Starting that very day, he was already referring to "when he went back."
There was something about deploying that really made Greg feel complete. We have a beautiful family and a loving marriage, and I could never find it in me to try to talk him out of something he felt was so important. Greg definitely believed in his duty first. But before you think that is inappropriate, let me say that the many absences we went through made our relationship stronger, and made what time we were able to spend together even more precious.
I never thought that Greg would not come home. To have thoughts like that when your husband is gone would make every day unbearable and I still had two little boys to care for. Through seven years of marriage, I had shown Greg that I was capable of standing on my own two feet and he never doubted my ability to care for us in his absence.
Even now, I feel comforted in knowing that Greg not only loved me but also trusted me enough to leave us.
So now, when I think about my answer to that question "do I support the war?" this is what I say. It’s not a matter of whether I support the war. What matters is that I supported my husband in something that was so important to him. I support the other soldiers who served with him and their families, who share in our sacrifice. I support the soldiers of the 410th Military Police Company specifically who, despite my husband’s death, continue with their mission, because I know Greg would want them to complete it.
But I want to pose a question to those who hold the fate of our military in their hands. Will you make my husband’s death worth it? He died believing that his mission was right and just. He was never afraid to fight to defend our country and would have gone to the end of the earth if that’s where the Army needed him. If we allow our nation to feel like this is a war we cannot win, we are saying that the price paid by my husband and other soldiers like him was paid in vain. As Americans, we need to make sure that the end justifies the means.
To our family and friends and those who have been pillars of support during this time, I want to thank you. But instead of mourning for us, I want you to mourn for the people who were never blessed with knowing Greg. He was a loving husband and doting father. He had an ability to make anyone laugh and I feel regret for those who were never able to see this in him.
I know several of you have said that you will always remember Greg. But as his wife, I want to ask you that instead of just remembering him, you never forget him. Never forget his bravery, courage and commitment to our country. Never forget what he sacrificed so that we might have a better life. Never forget that what he died doing he believed in. But most of all, never forget that men and women like him became heroes long before they died. They became heroes when they enlisted."
Wow! Such a powerful expression of her perspective! I now comprehended and committed to do as she requested and not forget the heroes who enlisted.
Immediately the singer began “God Bless the U.S.A.” When Lee Greenwood’s lyrics suggested:
“And I gladly stand up,
next to you and defend her still today.
‘Cause there ain’t no doubt I love this land,
God bless the USA.”
Slowly everyone – all the nearly nine hundred folks there - did stand up. I glanced around, noting Lori and her two little sons standing tall, my Aunt Dortha moving more upright in her wheelchair, and then, then, it happened.
My unveiled eyes moved next to her where Uncle George has been for 65 years. All day he had been proudly wearing his VFW hat covered with distinctive pins and his shiny blue VFW jacket. Now he stood, slightly stooped and yet erect as he saluted the flag and honored the memory of his grandson. My tears began to flow unchecked.
Immediately after the ceremony I stood in the hall behind Uncle George as the Patriot Guard moved past. To every single one of these flag-bearing individuals, whose dress revealed a combination of military uniform and motorcycle gang, Uncle George stepped forward and said, “Thank you.”
We walked down a lengthy hall of the high school for a luncheon provided by the community. The middle school children had created and hung overhead generously swooping paper chains of red, white, and blue. One trophy case revealed a large photo of Greg. A long table held marked high school yearbooks designated with his activities and photos.
The cafeteria was ready for five hundred who remained for the lunch reception. Two local florists had donated the centerpieces which decorated the tables. Members of the Webberville High School Student Council and National Honor Society dressed in black skirts and slacks with white tops served salads, spaghetti, rolls, and cake. What a tribute from this small town!
Later, at Aunt Dortha and Uncle George’s, various families came and went. Many hugs were shared and memories relived. But one that summarizes this experience for me was a quick question, “What is that bracelet you have on, Uncle George?”
He confidently responded, “It says, ‘I support our troupes.’”
I wanted to share with you the diverse images and emotions that moved me in recent days. Before and after Webberville, I am opposed to this war. But now, I fully support our troops. And when I see uniformed military in the airport, I am deeply appreciative for their gift to us all. It seems to complete the evolving circle of our time back to our parents’ to reach out to them and warmly say, “Thanks.”
Linda Foster Momsen