Yesterday my family and I made the trip to Arlington National Cemetery to observe Memorial Day and honor the more than one million men and women who paid the ultimate sacrifice in the service our great nation. The traffic in and out was dreadful, mostly due to road closures for Rolling Thunder Run, but in the end it was something I felt we needed to do and I'm glad we went. The plan was to watch the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and then visit the grave sites of a lost friend and a few others that were buried there this year.
The Changing of the Guard ceremony is really something you have to see to appreciate and The Old Guard does an outstanding and impeccable job of fulfilling this duty. Moreover, The Old Guard also places flags in front of the more than 260,000 graves at Arlington just before Memorial Day which really makes for a spectacular show of patriotism to those visiting the cemetery.
We then visited the grave of my friend Msgt. Ronald Geza Katona who passed away in 2004, just 19 days shy of his 43rd birthday. While I'd never served in the same unit with Ron, I'd known him for years having met at an autocross being held at Ft. Meade where we were both stationed. Ron was epitome of the nice guy, always looking to extend a helping hand to the new guy and get them hooked on this sport that he loved so much. I was pleased to see that others had been to visit with him recently as evidenced by the stones left on his headstone, typically a Jewish ritual. I will never forget Ron and as long as I live in this area I will make every effort to visit and pay my respects to him yearly.
I had intended to visit the burial sites of several other young Americans who died and were laid to rest this year and to that end had researched their stories some before the weekend. My plan was to utilize the cemetery's smart phone app, ANC Explorer, to find the sites of these individuals once we arrived at the cemetery. Unfortunately, this app was cumbersome and not very helpful in finding any of the burial sites for the individuals I had intended to visit. I have written a little bit about each of them below and will endeavor to plan better next year and pay my respects to them.
Capt. Cullen was born and raised in Eldersburg, MD which is were my family and I currently call home. She was a graduate of Liberty High School and West Point and was trained as a Black Hawk helicopter pilot. She and her crew or four perished on March 4, 2013 when their Black Hawk crashed during a training mission near Kandahar, Afghanistan. Capt. Cullen was 27 years old.
Sgt. Aaron Wittman - 3rd Battalion, 69th Armor Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division
Sgt. Wittman was the first U.S. combat casualty of 2013. He was a decorated veteran on his second combat deployment to Afghanistan and had earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star during his service. On January 10th while on mounted patrol, his unit was attacked with small arms fire and Sgt. Wittman died of his injuries; he was 28 years old.
Capt. Steele was killed April 3rd when his F-16 fighter crashed near Baghram Airfield in Afghanistan; he was 29 years old.
Chief Shadle was a decorated combat veteran with several decorations including two Bronze Star Medals of Valor. Chief Shadle leaves behind a wife and two young children. He died in a training accident on March 28, just 11 days after his 31st birthday.
Capt. Pedersen-Keel, of Miami, FL was one of two soldiers killed on March 11th when an Afghan police officer opened fire inside a police station in Wardak province, Afghanistan. Capt. Pedersen was 28 years old.
That is just a handful of the stories out there of military members that paid the ultimate price this year alone. On this Memorial Day, and every day, let us not forget the sacrifices made by our military members and their families in the name of freedom.