Traverse City Record-Eagle

May 28, 2013

A Memorial Day to remember

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Don Nixon still jumps at the sound of a Memorial Day gun salute.

The Korean war veteran, 84, transports back to the battlegrounds of what some call the "Forgotten War" where thousands of soldiers died in the cold and mud.

"It's something you never forget," Nixon said. "When you're in a combat situation you can get killed at any time. It's just with you all the time."

Nixon doesn't want the memories to fade, even if he remains reluctant to talk about his experiences.

He was one of hundreds who listened to Sgt. Major Martin Wilcox give the keynote speech at the first Memorial Day ceremony to be held in the new Grand Traverse Veterans Memorial Park. The annual ceremony is organized by the Grand Traverse Area Veterans Coalition.

Wilcox, a Kingsley resident who retired after 32 years in the Army, said many veterans lived through experiences others would say are best forgotten, but he remains proud to be a veteran.

"All veterans, famous or not, played a key part in keeping the United States free," he said. "Honoring them today is a small price for us to pay for the lives that they gave to the United States."

Wilcox was flanked by a circle of granite stones etched with the names of 500 local soldiers. The ceremony honored members of each branch of the armed services who lost their lives.

Jeff Lewis served in the Marine Corps from 1979 to 1986 and has since been involved in veterans ceremonies and memorials, including putting up 700 flags in Memorial Gardens Cemetery. He said Memorial Day was "all about choices," as he waited for the ceremony to begin.

"You can choose to go the beach or you can choose to go here," he said. "You can go to the beach because of what a veteran chose to do."

Following the ceremony, local Boy Scouts performed a flag retirement ceremony. Darryl Nelson, scoutmaster for Troop 31, said scouts regularly perform the "solemn" service.

"It's important for the community and veterans, and particularly young scouts, to show appreciation for those that served," he said.

Two members of the VFW Post 2780 Honor Guard may have received the most appreciation after the ceremony. Charles Lewis, 95, and Richard Rizzio, 88, are two of the five remaining Battle of the Bulge veterans in the Grand Traverse region.

Their memories of the cold and hard-fought battle in the forests of Belgium and Luxembourg are still fresh, 68 years later.

"It's very emotional to think about all the buddies you lost," Rizzio said.

Rizzio said most of the men in his unit were about 18 years old. But the enemy was young, too, which Lewis found when a German soldier shot and wounded one of Lewis' fellow infantrymen. The German ran out of ammunition and easily could have lost his life if Lewis hadn't looked him in the eyes.

"I saw he was a boy of not much more than 18," he said. "I took him as a prisoner of war. What I wished is I put a note in his pocket telling him who saved his life."

Lewis and Rizzio spent time after the ceremony shaking hands and posing for pictures. Rizzio reckons just four of the local Battle of Bulge veterans are healthy enough to get around nowadays, but he still plans to attend next year's Memorial Day ceremony.

"We'll be here next year, the good Lord willing," he said.