‘It is not for us who are gathered here today’

Memorial Day observance honors veterans’ sacrifice

By Kevin Spradlin
PeeDeePost.com

* Photo gallery – Nearly 500 photos can be downloaded free of charge
* Video – “Helmet on the Butt of a Gun” by Michael Boney
* WAYN Radio – Interview with the National, state VFW commanders by American Legion Post 147’s Carlton Hawkins

ROCKINGHAM — Mary O’Neal would have been given a pass if she had missed the Memorial Day ceremony on Saturday at Richmond County Veterans Memorial Park.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com Mary O'Neal and Patricia Davis represent AMVETS Post 316 Ladies Auxiliary during the wreath laying ceremony.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
Mary O’Neal and Patricia Davis represent AMVETS Post 316 Ladies Auxiliary during the wreath laying ceremony.

O’Neal wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Doing so might have let down her late husband, retired Army Command Sergeant Major Edward O’Neal. Edward O’Neal died May 6 after an extended illness. A veteran’s advocate to the end, Mary O’Neal said there was simply no way she could have stayed home.

“This is what was so important to him,” she said while standing in front of the Fallen Soldier Memorial, unveiled by VFW Post 4203 during the ceremony.

The memorial was privately funded through individual contributions as well as a larger contribution from Pee Dee Electric, officials said. The monument includes a bronze pair of combat boots and a rifle topped by a soldier’s Kevlar helmet in the shape of a Battlefield Cross. It was created in Baltimore, Md. The monument stands nearly 7 feet tall from base to helmet.

Hundreds of people, many of them veterans, attended the event. The high turnout was believed to be in support of William A. Thien, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States and Ernest E. Allis, state VFW commander. Both men were present on Saturday.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com

O’Neal said her husband, who retired in 1976, never stopped championing the cause of veterans. He seized any opportunity to make things right in only a way a top enlisted man can demand. Edward O’Neal worked with multiple veterans organizations to see that deployed soldiers had access to phone cards to call home. He also spent time visiting families lodged at the Fisher House while they were visiting wounded military service members.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com AMVETS led the folding of the American flag.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
AMVETS led the folding of the American flag.

Mary O’Neal recalled that in 2006, she and Edward spent Thanksviging in Landstuhl, Germany, to spend time with soldiers who had been shipped from combat areas for medical treatment en route to the U.S. Edward O’Neal had served as first sergeant years prior to that at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

He played a critical role in getting the Veterans Affairs medical clinic in Hamlet. But the job’s not yet done, Mary O’Neal said.

“There’s just not enough staff to take care of the veterans here,” she said of the Hamlet facility. “It needs more attention.”

Congressman Richard Hudson was one of many who noted Edward O’Neal’s absence. Hudson said he had attended past veterans events in Rockingham with Congressman Robin Hayes and it was “with a heavy heart” he was there Saturday without O’Neal’s presence.

O’Neal, he said, “set a great example for us. He woke up everyday and said, ‘what can I do to service veterans?'”

VFW Post 4203 Commander Eddie Dean acknowledged he was nervous at the number of dignitaries in the crowd but was calmed while reading a letter written by VFW member Larry Evans. In his letter, Evans noted that Memorial Day “is not for those of us who are gathered here today” but for those who went into combat areas and never made it home alive — or never made it home at all.

Evans credited these fallen soldiers for the group’s ability to “enjoy the freedom to assemble” for ceremonies like the one on Saturday.

Through Dean, Evans noted it’s difficult for veterans who do make it home to go on without feelings of “guilt and powerlessness.”

“Life,” Evans wrote, “does not prepare us for this.”

Michael Boney, for one, seemed to get it. The Bennettsville, S.C., resident penned an original song entitled, “The Helmet on a Butt of a Gun” a year ago expressly for the purpose of honoring American military servicmembers who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

“The perfect time today, I’m going to get to perform for whom it was meant for,” he said.

He was only 18
Wanted to be all he could be
When he graduated, he joined the Army
His Mommy said no, don’t go
I want you to stay
I’ll miss you every single day
He got deployed overseas
Now every night his mother prays on her knees
She says, God I know you’re listening
to the words that I pray
I want you to bring my son home safe.
You see, they fight for our freedom
You don’t realize how much I need ’em
… There’s a helmet on the butt of a gun.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com William A. Thien, right, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, with Ernest E. Allis, commander of the  North Carolina VFW.

Kevin Spradlin | PeeDeePost.com
William A. Thien, right, commander in chief of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, with Ernest E. Allis, commander of the North Carolina VFW.

 

 

 

 

Filed in: Featured News, Latest Headlines, Military and Veterans, News

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  • Patricia Davis

    Heartfelt thanks to Kevin for the excellent job in capturing the emotions of the event. Michael Boney’s performance was outstanding and his song truly added to the day. Many eyes glistened with tears as he sang the song he wrote. Many felt the absence of Ed O’Neal as he touched the lives of so many veterans. Truly a day to reflect, remember, and honor those past and present.

  • Ron and Jesse Carden

    On behalf of Myself (retired USAF MSgt Ron Carden, my wife Jesse O’Neal-Carden and our son Conner O’Neal-Carden, we stand steadfast beside Mary O’Neal in support of our fallen soldiers, sailors, and airmen while cherishing our special memories of Jesse’s father – Command Sgt Major Edward O’Neal and his service and sacrifice to our country as a champion of Veterans Affairs. Our son Conner’s fellow classmates, while attending 6th grade at Missouri Military Academy on May 6th held a moment of silence for his grandfather upon learning of his passing from the academy commandant Our nation was founded on the strength and determination of such warriors as CSM O’Neal and we entrust that our son will dedicate his part to the continuation of our blessed freedoms.

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