As Memorial Day is celebrated this weekend, it will hold different meanings for families across the nation and in the Grand Canyon State.
Some families will host barbecues and sip a cold beer or two; but for others, it will be a day of reflection and remembrance or perhaps visiting a cemetery and placing an American flag on the graves of the ones they will never forget.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been at least 135 soldiers from Arizona who have been killed while on active duty, mostly in the Middle East.
Of those soldiers, 18 were from the East Valley. Since 9/11, Mesa has had 12 soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice; Chandler, three; Tempe, two; and Queen Creek, one.
In January at Scottsdale Stadium, the Nebraska-based nonprofit Remembering Our Fallen unveiled the traveling Arizona exhibit of fallen soldiers who have died while on active duty since 9/11. The organization also has completed exhibits for other states, including Colorado, Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and North Dakota.
While service groups and organizations have consistently booked the exhibits in other states, the Arizona exhibit of Remembering Our Fallen will not be on display during Memorial Day festivities as no one booked it.
“That’s a shame,” said Bill Williams, the executive director of Remembering Our Fallen. “The purpose of this exhibit is to be seen and the families of those who have served in the military and others can see it. This exhibit is meant to be seen and shouldn’t be sitting in a garage. These are people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
Although the stories of these fallen soldiers may have faded in our minds with yesterday’s news, they forever hold a special place in the hearts of those they left behind.
The fallen and their sacrifices are not forgotten.
Cory Jenkins: Traits live on in daughter
On Memorial Day, Brooke Jenkins Walters said she and her nearly 3-year-old daughter Reagan will visit the cemetery and place flowers on the grave of her late husband, Cory Jenkins.
She said she also will write him a letter, thanking him for what he has done for her and Reagan and the sacrifices that he made both for them and for our country.
“It will be quiet and personal,” Brooke said.
U.S. Army Capt. Cory Jenkins, a physician’s assistant, was 30 years old when he was killed on Aug. 25, 2009 with about 40 other soldiers on their way back from a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.
An Eagle Scout when he was a youth, Jenkins was a graduate of Mesa High School and Brigham Young University. He then went on to graduate school at A.T. Still University, where he graduated as a physician’s assistant before joining the Army in October 2007 with aspirations to work in the medical field.
In the near three years since Cory’s death, Brooke said she has moved forward with her life by “living in the moment a little more” as life can be fleeting and not last as long as you expect.
In November, Brooke, who lives in Mesa, also remarried. Her husband, Ryan Walters, a widower, has a 6-year-old son, Noah, who Brooke said is a “good big brother” to Reagan and watches out for his “little sister.”
Of her late husband, Brooke said, “My Memorial Days haven’t been the same since. Even though it’s been nearly three years ... He’s still there on my mind every day. I appreciate life more because I know it can be fleeting.”
Cory and Brooke’s daughter Reagan was born June 14, 2009 and was just eight weeks old at the time of her father’s death.
When Cory’s parents Stan and Jeanne Jenkins of Mesa celebrate Memorial Day, Stan Jenkins said they will do so in remembrance of their son.
“It’s a hard day to go through,” Stan Jenkins said. “A lot of our soldiers have died through the wars in the Middle East, and that make it’s personal for us.”
Jenkins was quick to point out that his son was not in the Middle East to harm anyone, but was there to help.
Cory Jenkins was returning from a humanitarian mission when he and about 40 members of his crew died from an improvised explosive device, according to the Department of Defense.
“It’s been tough,” Jenkins said of moving forward without his son as a part of their family. The hardest thing is seeing his little girl. She’s an absolute little jewel. She would just melt his heart.”
Reagan now is a toddler and often speaks of her “soldier daddy,” Stan Jenkins said.
“I see Cory in her attributes and her personality,” Brooke said. “She’s a gift from God and something I can look at every day and see him.”
Brooke said she also moves forward, taking the examples of sacrifice and selflessness that Cory gave her.
“There is a saying by Thomas Payne we live by,” Brooke said. “‘What we obtain too cheaply, will we esteem too lightly.’ That’s kind of what I think about our country. This country is worth so much more to us because we made that sacrifice and it didn’t come cheaply.”
Johnathan McCain: East Valley’s most recent fallen soldier
When Robert and Peggy McCain of Gilbert mark Memorial Day this year, it will have more meaning than it ever has before.
Their son, Army Sgt. First Class E-7 Johnathan McCain of Chandler who was on his third deployment to the Middle East and a year and a half away from retiring from the service, died Nov. 13 from injuries suffered in the Kandahar Province of Afghanistan while on patrol. He was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
McCain, 38, who loved the outdoors and was a talented artist, grew up in Chandler and graduated from Chandler High School. He had a wife, LeAnne, and four children — three daughters and one son ranging in age from 8 to 18. McCain had previously served two tours in Iraq and earned two Purple Hearts and two Bronze Stars.
His parents returned to the East Valley earlier this week after observing an emotional re-deployment ceremony in Alaska, where Jonathan’s Striker Brigade was stationed and returned after their assignment ended in Afghanistan, a changing of the guard of sorts.
“This year, we will remember our son, but we’ll also remember those who return and remain in the service,” Robert McCain said. “It’s been tough. He was my best friend. He passed six months ago, but it seems like yesterday. He loved the outdoors. He was a tremendous artist.”
Of Memorial Day, he said, “It’s just another day of remembrance for my son as well as all the others who remain in the service. We’ll also remember him on Nov. 13. That was the day they came to my door to tell me he had died. Whenever these memorials or military events are held, it brings it all back all over again.”
McCain said during the redeployment ceremony, he saw many of the soldiers who knew his son and many of those who had been seriously injured, missing an arm or a leg.
“It was a big deal,” McCain said of the ceremony. “All Americans should go see a redeployment ceremony or be made to go. We had no idea. We saw many of these young men who had been injured returning from the war. You reached out to hug them but they couldn’t hug you back because they were missing an arm.”
McCain said his son was a very giving person who rendered a painting of his Stryker Brigade, and then sold 500 limited edition prints, donating the proceeds to the Young Soldiers Ball so some of the soldiers could afford to pay for a tuxedo to the dance. Many of McCain’s prints hang in various battalion headquarters and one hangs in a general’s office at the Pentagon.
In the months ahead, Johnathan McCain’s wife and children will return to the East Valley, where his wife, LeAnne, also grew up.
“It’s been a very heartfelt thing,” McCain said of his son’s death six months ago. “I dearly miss my son. But, Memorial Day is not just about all of those who have died. It’s also about all of those who have served and continue to serve. They’ve paid a tremendous price.”
Elijah Tai Wah Wong: A soldier from two wars
Living in Manhattan, Olga Wong is far removed from the East Valley where her son lived for a short time, but she still holds him close to her heart.
On Feb. 9, 2004, Elijah Tai Wah Wong was the East Valley’s earliest known fallen soldier and the first Arizona National Guardsman to die in the war on terror following 9/11.
Wong, 42, was assigned to the 363rd Explosive Ordnance Company, Army National Guard, Casa Grande. He died when a collection of unexploded ordnance, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar rounds detonated while being moved to a demolition point in Sinjar, Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. One other man in Wong’s unit died and seven were injured.
The son of a Chinese father and a Jewish mother, Wong had been in the service for 20 years, was a husband and father of three and someone his mother described as a “great husband and a wonderful father, son and brother.” Of his three children, only his daughter, Shi, was born in Mesa, on Sept. 7, 2001.
On Friday, Olga Wong said over the telephone from Manhattan that it is hard for her to participate in various events during Memorial Day as she observes Jewish holidays this weekend, including the Shavuot, a day for remembering the 10 Commandments being brought down from Mt. Sinai. But on Monday, she will observe Yizkor, a day of lighting a candle and remembering the dead.
After attending high school in Israel in the early 1980s, Elijah Wong had served for three years with the Golani, the equivalent to the U.S. Marines in Israel during that country’s war with Lebanon, his mother said.
How will Olga Wong remember her son on Memorial Day?
“With tears,” she said. “How else will I remember him? He’s missed so much. It gets much worse each year. He died a senseless death.”
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