The individual stories of America's veterans deserve to be heard and preserved, keynote speaker Jeremy Amick told a somber crowd gathered on Memorial Day at the Jefferson City National Cemetery.
Sponsored by the Jefferson City Veterans Council, Monday's ceremony was a forum for citizens to pay their respects to the veterans who have given their time and energies - and to fallen soldiers who have sacrificed their lives - in service to their country.
Amick said, for himself, Memorial Day serves as a motivation to collect as many veterans' stories as possible. Too often, he lamented, if a first-hand version isn't committed to paper, the second- and third-hand editions are marred by errors in understanding and fabrications.
"As I gaze upon the markers and headstones around us, I can't help but wonder how many stories, personal legacies, jubilations, and perhaps tribulations, have been buried with the brave men and women whose names are inscribed on these pieces of granite," Amick said.
To make his point, he shared the war stories of five men: Eugene Earle Amick Jr., Alfred Aiken, Tom Umstaddt, John Clark and Don Hentges. Two of those men, Amick and Aiken, died as a result of World War II. The remaining three - Umstaddt, Hentges and Clark -paid a heavy price for their service.
Hentges serves today as the president of the Jefferson City Veterans Council. But in the late 1960s, he had just completed his basic training at Fort Leonard Wood and was in Vietnam, having volunteered to be an M-60 machine gunner. On patrol in search of a river crossing, he and his crew were caught by a land mine. The explosion killed his close friend, Willy McVea, who was carrying the group's radio.
Although the men were able to establish a defensive perimeter - hoping American forces would find them quickly - a second booby trap was triggered, and Hentges suffered serious leg injuries and an eye wound. He spent weeks in Japan before he was medically evacuated to San Antonio.
"When I lost my friend that day I made a promise I would do everything I could to make sure he wouldn't be forgotten," Hentges said. "It happened 45 years ago this year. But it still seems like yesterday."
As he spoke, one of his granddaughters, a 4-year-old named Emily, clung to his leg while her two sisters stood nearby. Hentges said it was good to see small children at the memorial service.
"This is the reason we fought," he said, giving the young girl a squeeze. "Too many times veterans are forgotten."
Amick said stories like Hentges' are "living history" that shouldn't be forgotten.
"What do Umstaddt, Hentges and Clark have in common?" Amick asked. "They were willing to share their stories with someone who was willing to listen and write it down. We are fortunate to have secured their stories for posterity, considering that our state lost over 1,400 young men and women during the Vietnam conflict.
"As I see it, that's more than 1,400 first-hand accounts of service and sacrifice that may have been lost in the opaque shroud of history."
He exhorted all listeners to try and record the stories of people they know who have served in the military.
"They all have stories that deserve to be shared and passed down through the generations in order to ensure that those who come along many years later might catch a glimpse into their payment of blood, toil and tears," he said.
As part of Monday's service, many in the crowd participated in a "Two Bell Ceremony" to honor 75 local veterans who have died in the past 12 months. At the sound of each person's name, a small red poppy was tucked into a floral wreath form.
Helen Jaegers of Jefferson City came forward to pay tribute to her cousin, James Thomas, who died on Aug. 10, 2012. Thomas, who served in World War II, was the former owner of American Shoe. Jaegers has several family members - including her husband, Robert Jaegers - who have served overseas.
"We've been coming here for years, even when our children were little," she said. "It's our time to say thank you and remember."