Retired Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell urged those attending Monday's ceremony to remember why Memorial Day is celebrated. (Photos by Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Retired Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, a Johnson City native and resident, said he thinks the meaning of Memorial Day may, at times, be overlooked.
On Monday, Harrell served as the keynote speaker for the third annual Memorial Day Ceremony at the Johnson City/Washington County Veterans Memorial, which was conducted by the JC/WC Veterans Memorial Committee.
While speaking at the memorial, located in Kiwanis Park at the corner of West Market Street and Veterans Way, Harrell reminded those in attendance that the holiday was not meant as an excuse to have an extra day off from work.
“We all have a tendency to think about Memorial Day (as) a wonderful family picnic, outings, and trips to the lake,” Harrell said. “I think those things are all great; I love to do them, too. But take a moment every Memorial Day to remember why we’re celebrating.”
That reason, according to Harrell, is to take a moment to remember those who died in service of the U.S. Armed Forces. While Harrell said he was appreciative of ceremonies like the one at which he spoke, he added he was worried that concern for veterans was diminishing, particularly on the federal level.
“When military members enter the service, they’re promised that if they serve 20 years, at the end of that time, their medical care for them and their family is taken care of,” he said. “We’re breaking that promise today. Veterans should not be dying waiting to get into the VA.”
In December 2013, Dr. Sam Foote, who worked at the Phoenix VA Heath Care System, told members of the media that VA patient wait times had been falsified to make it appear as though they were shrinking, when, in actuality, veterans were dying while waiting for treatment. Since Foote came forward, the U.S. Inspector General’s office began investigating 26 other VA facilities throughout the country on suspicion of similar practices.
Harrell said the Mountain Home VA Medical Center, however, was not among those facilities.
“Our VA here is one of the best in the nation,” Harrell said. “They have problems in about half of the VAs in our nation right now ... but that does not apply to the VA here. Everyone I know that has been at this VA, including myself, has gotten excellent treatment.”
Despite the service of the local VA, Harrell encouraged those in attendance to communicate with their leaders at the federal level.
“You should write your elected representatives, and you should tell them you want to see positive steps taken within a month to clean up the mess in the VA,” he said.
In addition to those representatives, Harrell encouraged those in attendance to also write to President Barack Obama, who has publicly supported the notion of caring for veterans.
“The president recently flew into Bagram (Airfield) in Afghanistan,” Harrell said. “He stayed there for a whole hour, and said the case of our vets is a sacred obligation. Well, Mr. President, please put your money and your actions where your mouth is and clean up this mess.”
While questions over the government’s level of commitment to veterans may continue, during Monday’s ceremony, local leaders paid homage to veterans’ sacrifices. County Mayor Dan Eldridge presented Bonnie Lamb with a resolution passed by the Tennessee Senate honoring the service of her son, Floyd Watsel “Jason” Lamb Jr., who died while participating in a search-and-clear operation during the Vietnam War.
“For his heroic actions, he was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, the Army Commendation, National Defense, Vietnam Service, and Vietnam campaign medals,” Eldridge said. “Spc. Lamb’s conspicuous gallantry, intrepidity and action at the cost of his own life are in keeping the highest traditions of military service, and reflect great credit upon him, his unit and the U.S. Army.”
In addition to Lamb, other Washington County veterans were honored as Junior ROTC students from the county’s three high schools read biographies of different veterans from their respective regions.
Along with the guest speakers and planned presentations, however, those in attendance were offered a chance to thank a Washington County veteran, as well. During the ceremony, Gary McAllister, vice-chair of the JC/WC Veterans Memorial Committee, told attendees that the committee had provided them with that chance when they first came in.
“On this day, we honor all Americans ... but we especially want to remember ... the 352 men since World War I from Washington County who have lost their lives; those 352 names are inscribed on the wall behind me,” McAllister said. “When you walked in today, Boy Scouts from Pack 237 in South Johnson City handed out red poppies. On each of these poppies is the name of one of these 352 men.
“I would hope that, after the ceremony, you’ll go up, see the name, touch it and say a personal ‘thank you.’ ’’
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