Anne Arundel’s Heroes
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
Abraham Lincoln: Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863.
Those words came to me over and over as I overlooked a shaded grove the other day. Before me was a solemn light-haired lady, her eyes divided between a plaque in the grass and three young children. Most of what had minutes before been a crowd had gone on with their lives; the last of those who lingered were drifting away.
Soon, she alone remained in front of a red dogwood tree behind the plaque. She held her daughter; the two older boys split their time between the other eight dogwood trees and their mother. Two of the youngsters wore fresh white T-shirts with a picture of their father and above it the words My Hero.
James J. Stoddard Jr.
Who wouldn’t be moved by such a sight? I wondered what was going through the mind of Amy Stoddard of Crofton. The plaque at her feet read James J. Stoddard Jr., Crofton, Sergeant First Class, United States Army. Afghanistan, 9-30-2005.
How she managed to keep her eyes dry, I’ll never know. But it had to be done for the children’s sake. James, seven, still has trouble reconciling the death of his dad. She had to keep a stiff upper lip and that she did with remarkable poise.
When there were but the four of us left, I approached to offer condolences and ask what she could tell me about her late husband, Sgt. James J. Stoddard Jr.
“He was an army man,” she told me. “He loved the army, and he wanted to serve. He believed in and was proud about what he was doing, and previously served in Iraq.
“He shielded us, didn’t want us to worry about him. Then it happened in his second tour of Afghanistan. His Humvee skidded into a ditch. He would say he was just doing his job. His family has a long history of military service, and he knew the risk of being killed, but it was his job. He loved the army, loved to serve.”
She wore Sgt. Stoddard’s picture on a pin. When her eyes appeared on the verge of tears, she bounced her daughter Mackenzie in her arms and called her sons Megan and James to her side. Composure ruled.
The day’s ceremonies were “beautiful, absolutely beautiful,” said the widow who had previously been offered condolences at the White House. “My husband would have liked the ceremonies.”
Then with all three children in tow, she headed for refreshments for the kids. She walked slowly and solemnly, McKenzie still in her arms as I again offered condolences.
But what can one say? All I could muster was thank you for your husband, God bless you and good luck. My eyes were more moist than hers. Sgt. James J. Stoddard had made the supreme sacrifice for me, my family and all Americans as well as for his family.
He will never see those three children proceed through school, marry, start their own families, his grandchildren, maybe great grandchildren. Already has lost out on his hopes and plans with Amy. Like all the other heroes now resting in eternal peace, he did it for us. He did his job well.
Eight Other Heroes
Eight other heroes were honored at Fallen Hero ceremonies at Fort Smallwood as County Executive John Leopold and County Recreation & Parks dedicated the day to nine county servicemen who joined the Global War Against Terrorism and never again will be in our midst. The nine plaques in front of nine dogwood trees at the highest point at Fort Smallwood Park, Pasadena, will remind all passersby of their sacrifice. So will a new polished 90-foot aluminum flagpole that towers above all trees and carries an enormous 35-foot-by-20-foot American flag with 45 stars, as it did when Fort Smallwood was built in 1899.
This high-flying flag will be a landmark for mariners trafficking the Patapsco, also a reminder that near its base is the grove in which the county and its citizenry expressed their thanks to their fallen heroes. The others are:
• Justin J. Watts, Crownsville, corporal, U.S. Marines, Iraq, 1-14-06;
• Army Staff Sgt. Christopher W. Swanson, Rose Haven, Iraq, 7-22-06;
• Army Pvt. First Class Eric M. Kavanagh, Glen Burnie, Iraq, 9-20-06.
• Marine Lance Corporal Eric W. Herzberg, Severna Park, Iraq, 10-21-06;
• Army Command Sgt. Major Roger W. Haller, Iraq, 1-20-07
• Marine Major Douglas A. Zembiec, Annapolis, Iraq, 5-11-07;
• Army Specialist Michael B. Matlock, Jr., Glen Burnie, Iraq, 2-20-08;
• Army Sgt. First Class Collin J. Bowen, Millersville, Afghanistan, 3-14-08.
Their memorials are in three rows, three deep in the shaded grove, the flag they fought for overhead.
About a hundred citizens attended the ceremonies, with current and past service people and families of those honored. There were more than 25 solemn bikers from the Warrior Brotherhood and Patriot Guard Riders, who formed an honor guard up the hill to the flagpole. Patches and pins they wore made it obvious many of them had also served.
Just days before the ceremony, one of nine dogwoods to mark each individual memorial died. Harry Redmon and employees of Child’s Landscaping, who donated the trees and memorial rock, replaced it for the Armed Forces Day ceremonies. After the flag was raised 90 feet to the top of the flagpole, it was lowered to half mast to salute the fallen heroes.
Honor Those Who Served
On this Memorial Day the grove which also overlooks the distant playground can be suggested for a visit by those who want to pay tribute to those who fought and are still fighting the Global War on Terrorism. For those who observe the occasion as any other holiday or call for immediate withdrawal of troops, I have a question:
Who among you on this day to honor those who served will be the first to tell Amy Stoddard her husband gave his life in vain; we must cut and run?
Is it not for us the living to be dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that these dead shall not have died in vain? Enough said.