Letter: Remember true meaning of Memorial Day

From: Doug Wilson


Before moving to Columbus, I proudly served active duty and retired military members as an ophthalmologist in the United States Air Force. One of my favorite patients was a retired colonel whose chart bore a prominent sticker indicating that he was an ex-prisoner of war. I learned that he had been one of our country’s longest-held prisoners of war during the Vietnam War, spending almost five years in captivity after his F-4 had been shot down. He had endured unspeakable torture and starvation, much of it in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp.

While there he was kept in prolonged solitary confinement and forbidden from talking to other POWs, but they had kept their spirits up by communicating with an elaborate code of scratches, sniffs and coughs that was quickly taught to each newcomer to the camp. When he was released, he weighed less than 90 pounds, suffered from beriberi and was left with a permanent stoop and limp due to a back injury sustained on ejection that had not been treated.

Despite the hardships, he returned home and led a successful business career and never publicly complained about the war or his treatment. And he remained steadfastly loyal to the United States flag and the government it represented.

One day he was the last patient; we talked a bit past closing time and were the last to leave the clinic. As he walked across the deserted parking lot, the sound of retreat played by a bugle blared from the base’s loudspeaker. Military custom dictates that at the sound of retreat, uniformed personnel should stop, come to attention and salute in the direction of the music and the base flag.

It was one of those sweltering Texas days in which the temperature was well over 100 degrees and the heat waves radiated up off the asphalt. I was about 50 yards behind the colonel, and he did not know I was watching. He suddenly stopped, pulled himself as erect as possible and rendered a textbook salute. He could have easily taken a few more steps to where his wife was waiting with the comfort of their air-conditioned car — no one would have known or cared — but he remained at attention, paying respect to his flag. The sight of the solitary gesture from the man who had sacrificed so much for his country and yet who never lost his faith or his love for that country sent chills down my spine.

As Memorial Day approaches, I am reminded of that moment. I am proud that we live in a city that has such a wonderful event as the Salute concert to honor those who have served in our country’s armed services. We should put aside our political differences — remembering that political opinions will come and go — and focus on thanking those who sacrificed to make the expression of those opinions possible.