by Mike Haynie, Ph.D., Vice Chancellor, Syracuse University & Executive Director, Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF)
On this Memorial Day, a great many Americans will come together in cities, towns, villages, and at crossroads all across our great nation, to reflect upon those who gave their full measure in trade for the freedoms that we enjoy today.
Importantly, Memorial Day 2016 falls during the third year of the World War I Centennial Commemoration. Often referred to as the Great War, World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918. The United States entered the war in 1917, and before it was over more than 116,000 Americans lost their lives to ‘the Great War.’ In our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, 6,840 American service men and women have died wearing the nation’s uniform, and 301 of those called New York State home.
One of the ways we honor those we’ve lost to war is by telling and retelling their stories. With that in mind, I’d like to share the stories of three Central New Yorkers who paid the ultimate price in defense of our nation; one who was killed in 1918 in Chavignon, France; two others who died more recently on the battlefields of Iraq.
While generations apart, they share a common narrative – a narrative of service and sacrifice in response to the nation’s call to arms.
Corporal Homer J. Wheaton, a native of Pompey, N.Y., was the first Syracusan killed in World War I. A graduate of what was then St. John’s Military Academy in Manlius, Wheaton studied law at Syracuse University for two years before enlisting in the Army. On February 27, 1918, while fighting his way across the fields of France, an enemy grenade landed among members of Wheaton’s platoon. Homer grabbed the grenade and pulled it to his side in order to protect his comrades. The grenade exploded and Homer Wheaton was killed instantly. For his bravery, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, our nation’s second highest honor.
Eighty-eight years later, First Lieutenant James N. Lyons, from the Rochester suburb of Brighton, became Syracuse University’s first casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Lyons graduated from Syracuse University with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry in 2003, and immediately joined the Army. After completing Army Officer Candidate School, he was assigned as a tank platoon leader. On September 27, 2006, he was killed by an enemy sniper while defending a strategic facility in Baghdad, Iraq.
Just four months after First Lieutenant Lyons was killed in Iraq, Private First Class Shawn Falter, of Homer, N.Y., became Cortland County’s first casualty of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Shawn was a graduate of Homer High School, and enlisted in the Army in 2005. On January 20, 2007, he was taken prisoner and later killed in Karbala, Iraq.
To honor Homer Wheaton, the Syracuse University student veterans of World War I founded the American Legion Homer J. Wheaton Post No. 736 on campus and the City of Syracuse named a park on the east side after him. While the American Legion post is no longer active, Homer Wheaton Park, which has a baseball diamond, a basketball court, tennis courts and a playground, is very actively used and is home to the Syracuse Inner City Little League. Today, families will gather for picnics and children will play in Homer Wheaton Park. What a fitting tribute to his memory; families gathering and children playing in a place that bears his name.
To honor James Lyons, his fiancée Hillary Trent and fraternity brother Marc Klein established a scholarship at Syracuse University in his name. The James Lyons ’03 Sons and Daughters Memorial Scholarship Fund benefits children of fallen or disabled U.S. service members. It was fully endowed in 2012 and has provided scholarships to help children of fallen or disabled service members attend Syracuse University every year since. Helping others achieve their academic dreams is such a fitting way to honor James Lyons’ memory.
To honor Shawn Falter, the Village of Homer named the little league field in Griggs Field after him. The Shawn Falter Field is where the Major division of Little League is played. It seems a fitting tribute to have young people learning teamwork, stretching themselves to improve, and living life to its fullest in a place named in his honor.
And while it’s important and appropriate that we honor these three men with symbols – scholarships, parks, and athletic fields – it’s my belief that when we are at our best, we memorialize them in ways that represent humanity of their service and sacrifice as a means to positively impact future generations of Americans. To that end, the most profound and important way to honor those who have fallen dressed in the cloth of the nation is by telling and retelling their stories. This, however, is sometimes easier said than done. Sometimes these stories, for those best suited to do the telling, are a burden too heavy to bear.
I know this fact well, as my own life is inextricably linked to one of those stories.
Danny Jones grew up in Broomall Pa., and enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1967, when he was just 19 years old. He volunteered; he wanted to be a Marine; and he wanted to serve in Vietnam. Danny was the son of Helen Jones, sister to Ruth. Ruth was my grandmother. Danny and his first cousin Jim – Ruth’s son and my father – grew up together in suburban Philadelphia.
Early in the morning on July 11, 1969, Helen, Ruth, Jim, and the rest of my family were anxiously waiting on word from the hospital ship U.S.S. Hope – which was anchored off the coast of Vietnam. They were waiting to hear about Danny, who the day before had stepped on a landmine somewhere in the Quang Tri province of Vietnam. Word eventually did come. Danny was dead.
I said that my own story is inextricably linked to Danny’s, because just a few short hours after learning of Danny’s death, that same grieving family was on the way to the hospital with my mother, who had gone into labor while waiting to learn of Danny’s fate.
As it turned out, just a short time after Danny departed this earth, I was born into it.
I didn’t know Danny – he left too early, and I arrived a bit too late. More so, I didn’t know Danny because the details of Danny’s death, and more importantly Danny’s life, weren’t truly shared with me until just recently. For my family, and I think for my father in particular, the story was just too much. And so for 40+ years, and in spite of my own military service, Danny was a subject that was never really part of my own family narrative.
That said, last year I asked my father to tell me about Danny, and when he agreed, the floodgates opened. As a result, today I’m no longer someone who knows of Danny, but as someone who knows Danny. Moreover, because I’ve since shared Danny’s story, today others know Danny as well. That matters.
It matters because we are at our best as a nation when we share their stories, not just on Memorial Day, but each and every day. It matters because the countless stories representing this nation’s sons and daughters lost to war represent the most compelling means to drive home costs and consequences of war to a citizenry that is today, largely disconnected from the small minority of Americans who shoulder the burden of our collective defense.
Telling their stories – today and every day – is a gift that I’m quite sure Danny Jones and Homer Wheaton, and Shawn Falter and James Lyons, would find to be a fitting tribute to their sacrifice.