Children across the country get excited as days grow warmer, the days are longer, and, best of all, pools prepare for their summer opening. The excitement of freedom from homework and assignments, and the joy of friends, baseball, tennis and swimming — that is what Memorial Day was for me growing up as a boy in the West End of Richmond. It was the complete freedom from school routines and more chances to come and go and do as I please.
Memorial Day meant the start of cutting grass for spending money, and it brought with it the smells and sounds of summer and great pleasure to me as a youth. Moving into my adult years, it was a long weekend and cookouts, maybe the first chance to get out on the lake and enjoy a boat ride and more daylight to enjoy friends and family.
The last Monday in May signaled a change, things I enjoyed and looked forward to after winter and being indoors so much.
Even while serving in the United States Air Force stationed in Little Rock, Ark., I really thought of Memorial Day more as a long weekend, a federal holiday and the launch of summer. I showed appreciation for those who had given their lives for our country, but I truly didn’t view and feel the day in my heart significantly different than I had as a youth.
My son Drew and daughter Sarah were raised to honor their flag and country the same way I was as a child. My family supported me as I coached men’s soccer at Virginia Military Institute for 18 years.
One hard-and-fast rule was that you do not move a muscle during the national anthem — you stand tall and proud, and you honor the flag for all it represents. These things were important to me.
In December 2014, I moved back to Richmond after years working at VMI in beautiful Lexington, and I took on a new role working with students at Virginia Commonwealth University who had served their country and were using the GI Bill to attend VCU.
All this, and still yet Memorial Day never truly pulled at my heart. I
never grasped the significance and the weight of the day, nor the reason it was celebrated. I look back at that now and I struggle to grasp how I could have possibly not realized what this day truly means for so many.
On Nov. 27, 2018, while working in my office at VCU, my cellphone rang. I was happy to see my daughter-in-law Felicia’s name come up on the screen. That changed immediately when I heard her voice.
Through her tears and sobs she shared with me that my son Drew was gone, killed in action by an improvised explosive device in Ghazni, Afghanistan.
Drew was a 2011 West Point graduate, part of the Special Forces teams out of Fort Bragg, N.C., a team leader, and had left in August for his second deployment to Afghanistan. Drew knew the risks and so did we, though it was an unwritten rule that the risks were never to be discussed in any detail. The news was devastating.
I had spoken to Drew three mornings prior. He was on a tough mission and believed strongly in the difference he and his men were making. He wished me a happy Thanksgiving, said “love ya, Pops.” And I smiled to myself and told him I loved him, too. These were the last words we shared.
The next few months were a blur. The aching and emptiness of knowing I would never get to hear my son’s laugh again, to see his contagious smile … it would hit me out of the blue with no warning.
The support and love shown by friends, family and the entire community was heartwarming and something I deeply cherish to this day. Hearing good things about the quality of man Drew was, so many he had helped and so many he had touched. The many men Drew served with sharing their respect for his leadership and his friendship.
I received phone calls and emails from people I had never met telling me how Drew had made a difference for them in their lives and how much he meant to them and their families. Drew apparently had many “best friends.” His personality made everyone close to him feel they were his best friend, and many called to share stories and tell me how much they would miss their best friend.
So many tears, so many grown men sharing their love for Drew with me, I was deeply touched and proud. I ached for Drew’s wife, Felicia, for his sister, Sarah, his mother, Beth. And I ached myself.
Drew was ultimately flown to Dover Air Force Base, escorted by one of his West Point classmates and a close friend who was not one second away from Drew’s side, something that meant so much to all of us. We were supported at Dover by amazing chaplains and a level of care, support and professionalism that would make every American proud. Top generals and their wives, along with the vice president and his wife, patiently spoke with us, answering questions and expressing their condolences and deep appreciation for Drew’s commitment to his country.
Military leaders in Drew’s chain of command spoke frankly with us, voicing their experiences and impressions of the man and leader Drew had become. They shared what a huge loss he was and what a bright future he had, how very much he would be missed. They spoke openly to our family, congratulating us on raising an amazing man, a leader, a strong American and an amazing soldier.
We held services at St. Michael’s in Glen Allen, not an empty seat nor standing room to be found. Police and firefighters were there in force. We could never thank them enough for the love they showed. Our family was so deeply moved by so many who took time to show their respects.
Drew was laid to rest with full military honors and now rests in Arlington — Section 60, Grave 11841.
I went to visit him today, on the second Memorial Day since his death, supported by one of his best friends. It is a tradition at Arlington to place flags at every stone on Memorial Day.
Memorial Day for our family will never again be only the pool opening or the start of summer fun. It will never again be only a day off from work and time for friends and family to barbecue.
We will never again think of Memorial Day as just the start of summer.
Drew would have been one of the first to grab a beer, crank up some Zac Brown and enjoy that start of summer with friends and family. If Drew were here today, he would be celebrating and wanting us all to enjoy the freedoms and lifestyles that this wonderful country brings.
Because of men and women like Drew, we will all get that chance.
And now for me, my family and thousands like us, Memorial Day means so much more.
- By Stephen Ross Special correspondent, Times Dispatch
- May 24, 2020