Sixty-six years later, Lt. Col. Hank Cramer still remembers the knock on the door.
He was 4 years old. A colonel and a chaplain arrived to inform his mother that his father had been killed in Vietnam, the first Special Forces soldier to die in the conflict.
Decades later, Cramer would be the one who knocked.
Cramer joined the Army as a young man, serving 14 years in the Regulars and 14 years in the Army Reserve, including a five-year tour with his father’s Green Beret unit, the 1st Special Forces Group.
People often approach Cramer to thank him for his service. Sometimes, they go further, asking him what more they can do for America’s veterans. Cramer is prepared with a weighty reply.
“Be the kind of American worth dying for,” said Cramer, who delivered the keynote speech at this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery in Medical Lake.
Under a cloudless spring sky and dozens of flags buffeted by a stiff wind, hundreds of veterans, their families and members of the community converged for the ceremony, greeted by performances from the Lilac City Community Band.
After a brief prayer and a presentation of colors by an honor guard from Fairchild Air Force Base, cemetery director Rudy Lopez asked those in attendance to honor and acknowledge veterans of WWII and the wars in Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, as well as Gold Star Families, the immediate family members of a fallen service member who died in the line of duty.
“Memorial is every day to you, not just the last Monday of May,” Lopez said. “Know that you’re close to us in our hearts.”
The ceremony was the second to be held in-person after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Eastern Washington veterans cemetery. The event featured speeches from Cramer, as well as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, and veterans cemetery officials.
“I’m humbled by the presence of the veterans here,” Woodward said. “And I am so grateful that I get to live and serve in a community that honors and supports our military.”
Woodward also issued an official proclamation to commemorate the holiday at the ceremony.
“I, Nadine Woodward, mayor of the city of Spokane, do hereby proclaim May 29, 2023, as Memorial Day, and encourage all citizens to pay solemn tribute …” she said.
McMorris Rodgers praised the veterans, service members and Gold Star Families in attendance for their unwavering commitment to the nation.
“It is because of you that we stand as the strongest, safest and freest nation on the Earth,” she said.
The congresswoman focused her speech on the depth of sacrifice made by those who died during their military service, saying they were cut from a different cloth. She lamented that this willingness to sacrifice seemed in short supply these days, decrying a society driven by “instant gratification,” and relayed a conversation with her father.
“He said, ‘Cathy, we can’t even get through a game of pinochle anymore without somebody checking their cell phone,” she said. “Seems like everyone’s anxious to know when the next free thing is going to be handed to them.’ ”
In contrast, McMorris Rodgers pointed to the men and women in the military.
“These heroes are willing to sacrifice everything, even their own life, to protect freedom,” she added.
Before closing the event commemorating those veterans who have already died, Lopez drew attention to the plight of veteran suicide which continues to claim lives. He encouraged those in attendance who may be struggling to reach out and take advantage of resources, before reading out his personal cell phone number.
“We owe it to you to give you that arm up and help you through whatever challenges you face,” he said. “If you don’t know where else to call, call me.”