Memorial Day ceremony


Photo courtesy of Austen Smith/Washtenaw Now

Judge Shelton speaks at event in Saline

Retired Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton, a long time Saline resident and former mayor of the City, was Grand Marshal of the Saline Memorial Day parade and featured speaker at the ceremony held at Oakwood Cemetery.

Shelton, who retired from the bench in September 2014, is now associate professor and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Michigan - Dearborn.

Here are Shelton's words:

"We are gathered here to celebrate what Congress calls Memorial Day. Since its first official observation on May 5, 1868, when it was called Decoration Day, it has been a day of remembrance for those who sacrificed and died in our nation's service. And while it was originally dedicated to honor Civil War soldiers, we know it today as a celebration in memory of all who have fought for and defended our right to freedom.

I want to talk today especially to the young people who are here. What are we doing here? Maybe you are just here because you parents dragged you along after the parade. Maybe you are here to play these patriotic songs in the band. Or maybe you are just standing here wondering when these old fogies are going to stop talking so I can get back to texting my friends (if you are not doing it as I speak!) or get on to that Memorial Day picnic for a juicy hotdog. Why are we standing here among all these dead people? And why do so many of these tombstones have flags on them?

Part of the reason we are here is to remind us that the men and women who served and died in our military were real people just like you and your family and your friends. Their service, especially in time of war, changed the lives of real people.

My grandfather served in the Army during WW1, my father served in the Navy in WW2, and I served in the Army during the Vietnam era. My cousin, Art, was a little older than me when he went to Vietnam. He never came back. At the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, there are carved diamond shapes next to each of the names. When I first went to the memorial, there was only the outline of a diamond next to Art's name. That was because he was listed as MIA, missing in action. When I went back several years later, the rest of the diamond had been carved out. They never did find Art or even his remains. He was officially just declared dead. He was a real person, not just a name on a memorial wall. His parents said goodbye to him one day and they never saw him, or even his body, again. These flags all around us represent real people.

But there is another, and more important, reason we are here today. We are told that we are here to remember and give thanks to those who died during wartime. But what are we thanking them for?

Some of you know that I spent almost 25 years as a judge. Throughout that time I strongly believed, and enforced, what are called our 'civil liberties.' What do we mean by that? 'Liberties' is just another word for 'freedoms' and 'civil' in this context means citizen. In other words these are the freedoms we get just by being Americans. You know what they are freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure of our bodies and our homes, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to a fair trial the list of our civil liberties, our freedoms, goes on.

What was important for me, and what is important for us to realize today, is that none of those liberties are free. We paid for those freedoms with the lives of the men and women we are memorializing today. Real people fought and died to establish those rights in the Revolutionary War. Real people fought and died to keep those rights during every war we have fought since that time.

It wasn't a protester or a President who gave us free speech, it was the lives of young men and women. It wasn't a reporter or a blogger who gave us freedom of the press, it was somebody's father or son or daughter who died in a blood-stained uniform. It wasn't a lawyer or a judge who gave us the right to a fair trial, it was somebody's cousin who went away to war and never came back and whose bones lie rotting in some overgrown jungle.

Earlier this month, I stood at the American Cemetery which overlooks the WW2 D-Day beaches of Omaha and Utah in Normandy, France. After that single day of June 6, 1944, almost 2000 dead American bodies were recovered. Another 1500 American bodies were never found. Many of them had jumped out of their landing crafts into what was supposed to be waist high water only to have their heavy packs drag them down to a gasping drowning death in bloody water that was way over their heads. Others were shot and killed in the turbulent ocean water without ever reaching the shore. Their bodies were lost to the sea forever.

I realized as I looked at the rows of white tombstones that I was born just three weeks after that day and that everything that has happened to me since, and everything I have, especially my family, I owe to those men and women and the thousands of others who have died for us.

President Obama put it this way: 'The fallen patriots we memorialize today gave their last full measure of devotion. Not so we might mourn them, though we do. Not so that our nation might honor their sacrifice, although it does. They gave their lives so that we might live ours -- so that a daughter might grow up to pursue her dreams; so that a wife might be able to live a long life, free and secure; so that a mother might raise her family in a land of peace and freedom. Everything that we hold precious in this country was made possible by Americans who gave their all.'

So please think about this for at least a few minutes today. Young people, you are only able to get an education, be with your family, enjoy your friends, play your instrument, text or tweet or Instagram on your smartphone, eat that hotdog at the picnic, and do all of the other things that you enjoy, because these real people fought and died for you. The least we can do is thank them today.

When someone dies, bells are often tolled, meaning rung, or perhaps Taps is played, to mark the death. The poet John Donne reminded us 'never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.'

When you hear Taps played today, thank those who died to give you your freedoms. The bell tolls, the bugle plays, for you, and for this 'Sweet Land of Liberty' we live in."

Reprinted with permission from the Hon. Donald E. Shelton

Published: Mon, Jun 01, 2015


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