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Memorial Day - Remember And Honor
by U.S. Army Chuck Cannon
Fort Polk Public Affairs Office

May 28, 2023

Those haunting words were written by the Canadian poet, Soldier and physician John McCrae in 1915. He penned the lines as a memorial to those who died in a World War I battle near an area known as the Ypres Salient in Belgium.

The words serve as an example of the true meaning of Memorial Day ... to remember those who gave their all in defense of our nation.

Memorial Day - Remember And Honor graphic by U.S. Army Angie Thorne, Fort Polk Public Affairs Office
Memorial Day - Remember And Honor graphic by U.S. Army Angie Thorne, Fort Polk Public Affairs Office

Too often, Memorial Day is used to honor all Veterans. Veterans Day, celebrated on Nov. 11 each year, is set aside to honor military veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces.

The date was chosen to coincide with the armistice signed signaling the end of World War I on Nov. 11, 1918, and was originally called Armistice Day.

But Memorial Day is reserved for those who never came home from war, who left their all on the battlefields of Yorktown, Chancellorsville, Berlin, the Chosin Reservoir, Saigon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

My first memory of the significance of Memorial Day occurred in November 1968.

My classmates and I were sitting in our eighth grade math class at Woodlawn Junior High School in West Monroe, Louisiana, when there was a knock on the door. Through the door’s window I could see a local pastor.

Our teacher stepped outside, spoke with the pastor for a moment, then reentered the room and said, “Terry, you need to come outside for a moment.”

Terry Bratton got up, left the classroom, and didn’t return that day. Our teacher, with tears in his eyes, solemnly told us Terry’s older brother, Cpl. John Leslie Bratton, had been killed in action while serving in Vietnam.

Until that day, the Vietnam War had only been a daily report on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. It almost seemed unreal as it had not touched those of us who lived in the rural area of Southwest Ouachita Parish. But now, it was as if our entire class, and our church, was in the middle of the conflict.

Leslie, as he was known to us all, was a happy, fun-loving young man with his whole life in front of him.

Leslie was an ordained minister and could have received an exemption when his draft number came up, but said that wouldn’t be fair to those who had to serve. He enlisted, attended infantry school and headed to Vietnam on June 15, 1968, a member of Delta Company, 1st Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division.

On the morning of Nov. 11, 1968, Pfc. John Leslie Bratton, nicknamed “Preacher” by his fellow Soldiers, was walking point for his unit in Pleiku Province, South Vietnam, when it came under hostile fire. Bratton, along with Sgt. James Humphrey and Spc. Gary Rust were killed in the ensuing firefight. Bratton was 23.

Leslie’s was not the only casualty suffered by our small, tight-knit community.

Shortly after his death, Bratton’s best friend, Charles Beard, committed suicide, unable to handle the loss of a person he considered closer than a brother. It took Terry and his Family a long time to accept that Leslie was gone, another resident of Flanders Field.

For me, the war became real. It now had a face. If Leslie could be killed, anyone over there could be killed ... and I knew others who were there, some of whom were Family members.

Through the years, every Memorial Day, I thought of Leslie, of a life gone too early, of friends and family wishing they could have seen him come home.

I wish I could say Leslie was the only specific service member I personally knew who never came home, but there is another.

Capt. Thomas Felts was a company commander in the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when I was stationed with the same unit in the mid-1980s. Felts was a great commander and an all-around good person.

Fast forward to November 2006 during my tenure as editor of the Ruston Daily Leader in North Louisiana. When the war on terrorism began, I began to run the photograph of a service member killed in action on the left lower corner of our front page.

As I read the casualties of Nov. 14, 2006, I caught my breath ... Col. Thomas Felts was listed as KIA by an improvised explosive device. Another who joined the list of those in Flanders Field.

As a veteran, married to a veteran and the father of two sons who are veterans, I by no means advocate slighting those who served ... they deserve their day. But on Memorial Day, let us remember who that day is for ... those who never returned, and left their friends and families with, longing for one who will never return.

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