It’s days like Memorial Day when they’re top of mind, all those veterans and soldiers across America. It’s days like this that we think of the people who serve our country — and the people who serve them.
story by Bari Bates, Roman Stubbs, Sarah Elms and Zach Crizer / photos by Bari Bates and Sarah Elms
published May 29, 2012
There are not a lot of moments that allow for pause around Memorial Day for Christy Martin, co-owner of Martin’s Floral and Home Decor. The store is just too busy. But in her store’s back room, surrounded by her flowers, she takes a moment and pauses.
She is thinking now about all the arrangements that have left her store today, all the flowers that will be set down beside headstones and handed to loved ones. For her, this day is as busy as Christmas, maybe busier.
And then she’s right back to work. There are more arrangements to finish, this next one with red, white, and blue synthetic flowers packed into a small neat cone. On Memorial Day, there are always more arrangements to finish. The soldiers keep coming back from war, and Martin keeps arranging them flowers.
For the past 22 years, Martin’s has been part of the yearlong effort of supplying flowers to the Springfield community for Memorial Day. Next week, Martin will begin assembling plans for the coming year’s holiday. Christmas and Valentine’s Day arrangements will ship, birthday flowers and wedding bouquets will come and go, but the next Memorial Day’s flowers will always be on her mind.
Out in the front part of the store, between high stacks of bright flowers, customers Mike and Jeri Shean are picking arrangements from the shelves at the South Campbell store. Mike wears an American flag shirt for the occasion. He says he couldn’t imagine himself not honoring veterans – he takes time each Memorial Day to call or email each veteran he knows, just to say thank you.
It’s quite the list, he says.
Another couple, Waine and Denise Kirby, is roaming the aisles nearby, purchasing flowers for Waine’s father, who served in the Navy throughout World War II and passed away late last year. His family has made a tradition of grave decorating.
As customers  leave the store, an employee holds the door open for them, and they head out to the local cemeteries, flowers in hand, ready to face this Memorial Day.
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Springfield National Cemetery.
Across town, there are flowers, but the flags come first. They’re planted in front of each stone in each row, always the same miniature American flag. And here at Springfield National Cemetery, there are hundreds upon hundreds of rows — 17,000 veterans buried here in all. The stones look the same, and so do the flowers, and so do the rows. But there will always be men for whom each stone – each flag – is a personal journey.
That’s why Gary Edmondson was up by 4:30 a.m. Monday.
In preparation for the holiday this year, Edmondson, who serves as director of the cemetery, led a group of volunteers in adorning 17,000 headstones with American flags – a task that largely took place in the week leading up to the holiday. That meant early mornings, getting each flag planted in the ground before moving on to the next.
As light creeps across the southeastern corner of the cemetery, Edmondson knows that some 2,000 people will come to pay tribute at Springfield National this day, and he wants to give them the chance to “reflect on sacrifices” made by America’s armed forces. He has an event lined up, as always. There’ll be music from the Shriners band hosted on a lawn adorned with the Avenue of Flags — an arrangement of the stars and stripes that began in Springfield in the 1970s, according to Edmondson.
A retired Air Force soldier himself, Edmondson aids visitors to the cemetery with a booming voice, never forgetting his manners. For him, serving those who served is a full-time job.
“You’re helping the veteran by helping the family, meeting their wants, their needs,” he said. “And of course, our responsibility is to provide a respectful final resting place for veterans and their spouses.
“We try to keep that spirit all year long.”
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An afternoon of bingo not quite like any other at VFW Post 3404.
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VFW Post 3404.
It’s a warm afternoon much like the day before, and VFW Post 3404 is hosting giants with a penchant for laughter and fish fries. All told, there must be something like 100 veterans and their families here, a wealth of stories hidden behind every face. It’s the sort of place where if you took some time to look around, says Vietnam veteran Bill St. Gemme, pointing out to the crowd, you’d be almost certain to find more than a few Purple Hearts tucked into the corners of the cafeteria.
Two of them belong to Harry Scherner, 89. His father was a German immigrant who arrived in the United States early in the century, and when it came time for Scherner to become an infantryman in the Army in the 1940s, he found himself across the lines from cousins who’d enlisted under Hitler.
“Three of them were killed,” he says, cold words that cut against the laughter in the wood-paneled room.
It was the shrapnel and gunshot wounds in Germany in 1945 that earned Scherner the decorations he’s wearing this afternoon.
“It seems like the older generation is kinda dying off. The people who were in Korea and World War II were more demonstrative and organized parades, and the people who were doing that are no longer around.”
For nearly three decades, he’s been a staple of this VFW, which was also the time when he became part of the Veterans Memorial Team. He plays the bugle for the group, and has attended more than 8,000 military funerals across the United States.
Eventually, Scherner puts on his Purple Heart hat, and he and his buddies from the Greatest Generation walk out of the dining room and into the parking lot. All are about to climb into their vehicles and leave, celebrating just another nice afternoon at VFW Post 3404, but these men will be back soon.
They’re always at the VFW, always welcoming new members, too. It’s the same type of place for the old-timers and the newcomers, for those untouched and for those with scars.
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Our House Foundation.
But for all the names it’s taken, in essence it’s a soul wound. Or at least that’s the name Rita Spilken, founder of Our House Foundation, has for it.
“People don’t realize it’s a heart thing,” Spilken says. “It’s a soul wound, meaning that when you see your best friend being blown up to pieces and you can’t do anything – of course, it’s too fast – I go on the pretense of a soul wound, and people relate to that more than any other thing that I’ve worked with.”
Spilken is a Brooklyn native — with the accent to prove it. She moved to Springfield in 1991 to complete her doctorate at the Forest Institute for Professional Psychology, where she specialized in neuropsychology. After working as a clinical psychologist, Spilken started the Our House Foundation in 2004 to build a transitional community for veterans, active military members and their families.
The foundation — built down on the southern side of Springfield — has grown into a pivotal resource for servicemen and women across the country, and Spilken estimates she’s received more than 350 calls for assistance since she opened her doors.
“People say to me, ‘What do you actually do?’ And I say, ‘Anything that needs done,’” Spilken says. “You never know.”
On Memorial Day, people are especially attentive to the men and women who have served our country, but it’s locals like Spilken who serve them year-round. John Ciezaldo, a 67-year-old veteran and Spilken’s close friend, said Memorial Day commemorative events have decreased over the years.
“It seems like the older generation is kinda dying off,” he says. “The people who were in Korea and World War II were more demonstrative and organized parades, and the people who were doing that are no longer around.”
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The Moment of Silence.
It’s about ten past 3 when the silence comes.
For a moment, the radios go quiet, and the crackling of voices cuts short. The silence fills the car — this one certainly, and others across Springfield. Silence passes through home stereo systems tuned to the FM dial on this Monday afternoon.
Time doesn’t seem to move when it’s quiet. The eyes are restless at first and search for something to focus on in this vacuum. The ears are at a loss.
And it’s only when the moment’s drawing close that it begins to make sense. There’s something that starts something lifting in your chest. Maybe Pearl Harbor isn’t on your mind right now, or Iwo Jima or Sept. 11, but this day certainly is. You start thinking about why the moment’s there, and you think of the faces you’ve seen, and you think about their sacrifices — the soldiers, the florist, the grave-keeper — and you think about how this moment in the car will never be long enough to explain how you feel. The silence is still there, here in this car on the streets of Springfield, and there is so much to say.
And then the music starts again.
Strange, isn’t it? Here’s 24 hours set aside to remember our nation’s history and to honor the heroic individuals who sacrificed so much for their country. But it’s days like today, ironically enough, when one day or one moment of silence hardly seems sufficient.