Author's note: This tribute was written by my good friend Steve Sheldon.
This Memorial Day, while you are enjoying your class reunion, family get-together, outdoor barbeque, or an extra day off work, please remember all the Bernie Deghands who died serving this great country so that you can enjoy the freedoms that have been bought and paid for with real lives of real people. When the Stars and Stripes bows at half staff and flutters proudly in the breeze, think about their pain, their broken bodies, their final moments, see their faces, reflect on their sacrifice, pray for their families, remember their parents, wives, and children. This is why we have Memorial Day.
Bernie was a character of all characters. The only time that I wasn’t laughing at Bernie was when his sometimes cruel sense of humor was directed at me. He spared no one and his career paid the price many times. Bernie was demoted more times than I was ever promoted, even serving time in the brig for decking an officer. The only rank that Bernie didn’t have twice was Master Sergeant only because he was promoted posthumously. Bernie always did what needed to be done and said what needed to be said, regardless of who was offended. He was quick with an insult, which was uproariously funny as long as it was at someone else’s expense. That being said, he was also an excellent soldier.
One could always count on Bernie to show the way or to help you with a difficult task. He might have ridiculed you for not knowing, but I think secretly, he took great pride in helping out his teammates. There are far too many stories to share for this medium from the naked Bernie walking across the AO in his web gear, boots, and Kevlar helmet, to the all-pro wrestling moves, to the million practical jokes, to the fourteen stitches and scar on the top of my head resulting from a rock throwing contest which he probably won.
Bernie was taken from us on 15 September, 2006 in a firefight near Kandahar, Afghanistan. I do not know the circumstances of his death, but I am sure that he went down in the thick of it all. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Bernie left behind a wife, two daughters and a step son, brothers and sisters, and parents that miss his sense of humor at every family function. He will never be there for his children again, never. No birthdays, no graduations, no fishing trips, no weekend outings, no impromptu wrestling matches, no canoe trips, no first dates, no proms, no weddings, no grandchildren’s births, nothing. Never.
Bernie and countless others died so that you and others might be free, even those in foreign lands who can now enjoy their own freedoms, only a dream just a few short years ago. Was it worth it? I guess it depends on what’s done with those freedoms. What are you doing with yours? Are you doing your part? Do you cherish them? Do you guard them like precious jewels?
If you see me at a ceremony, don’t mind me if I get misty eyed. Don’t mind my children when they ask a little too loudly, “Mommy, why does Daddy always get tears in his eyes during the National Anthem?” Help me to teach them that we live in the greatest country the world has ever known only because others have made it so. Help me to teach them that patriotism isn’t a political act, but it is Duty, Honor, Country. Support me in teaching them that the Flag of the United States is a symbol to be cherished, loved, and defended. Help me impart to them that Freedom Isn’t Free.
Let us train our children to stand vigilant, guarding day and night those hard fought freedoms from those who would take them away in the name of safety, security, or convenience where the real reason is greed, envy, or political power. We are the greatest nation in the world because we are free. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is a birthright given to us by those who paid the ultimate price, like Bernie. Honor their sacrifice and guard those freedoms diligently so that their suffering is not in vain.
Here’s to all the Bernies this Memorial Day. May they rest in peace, and may the rest of us honor their memory this day.