Muriel Sue Parkhurst made a promise, and she intends to keep it.
For 24 years, the Alexandria woman has watched out for the dwindling number of Americans who fought in World War I. She has, over the years, told several dying men she would keep the organization that honors them alive as long as there is a member left.
“A promise means so much to me,” she said. “I was raised your word is the most important thing you possess, and no one will trust you or respect you if you don't keep your word.”
So every year, on the 11th day of the 11th month, Parkhurst is at the 3 p.m. ceremony at General John “Black Jack” Pershing's grave in Arlington National Cemetery, looking after her men. She makes sure the Veterans of World War I are bundled against the cold and takes pictures of them for the newsletter.
There are 3,000 veterans of World War I left. Their organization, which Parkhurst once worked for, ran out of money five years ago, and she asked the Military Order of World Wars to take over the ceremony. She is now the sole volunteer for the group.
Each year, she worries that the 100 seats will not be filled. The average age of the members is 99.
On Veterans Day, there are the big ceremonies – at Arlington National Cemetery and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And then there are the small ones.
Like Parkhurst, Charles R. Thomas has kept a small ceremony alive for 24 years. He has scheduled the chaplain and the speaker. He has ordered the wreath and the color guard. And he has worried about filling the seats – only 50 in his case – at the First Division Memorial near the White House.
Thomas, the president of the D.C. Chapter of the First Division Society and a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army, continues to make arrangements because there doesn't seem to be anyone else to do it.
“It's really an emotional feeling of patriotism,” said the 62-year-old Thomas, “of being loyal to my country.”
The First Division participated in World Wars I and II, Vietnam and Desert Storm, and the society has a potential membership of many thousands. But, Thomas said, “it is a small, hard core of people who will come.”
Thomas, who lives in Burke, Virginia, has problems putting together a
program and said he has to make numerous calls each year to find a speaker for his event. Everyone would like to do it, but no one wants to commit, he said. So hegoes through the list of several hundred retired First Division officials until someone agrees.
“Some will tear your heart out, and others don't make any sense,” he said. “We applaud anyway.”
Thomas said that when he was growing up in rural Kansas during
World War II, children at his two-room schoolhouse said the Pledge of Allegiance every morning and sang military songs.
“It was kind of patriotism run amok,” he said.
When the soldiers came home, including five of his uncles, the whole community turned out, and they “were received aswinners. They had stopped the aggression, and there were lots of good feelings.”
However, with the next two wars in Korea and Vietnam,there was little to celebrate, he said. “There was a great feeling of disillusionment, ” said Thomas, who fought in both conflicts.
But Thomas said he still feels very patriotic andwants to make sure the First Division is remembered each year.
“It doesn't bother me very much that we get a smallcrowd,” he said. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction … to do whatI feel is my responsibility. As the Bible says, ‘When two or moreare gathered together … ‘‚”
Then he recited the First Division motto, his voicegetting husky. “No
mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first. I really believe that.”
In contrast, Parkhurst stumbled into a job that claimed her devotion. Shetook a secretarial job with the veterans organizationin 1974, when her husband left her with a small child. She was sure that he would return and that the job would be short term, she said.
“I just needed a job for a couple of weeks until myhusband realized he couldn't live without me,” she said. “Well, I guesshe could.” She now runs the organization from her home.
Parkhurst said the national commander, one of the veterans, always speaks at the ceremony. But Joseph Schwartz ofArizona, who assumed the commander's post in September at the annualconvention, died last week. So Parkhurst spent the last few days scramblingto find a substitute speaker from among the 300 or so members who live in the area.
And come 3 o'clock today, she will be there with her men.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard