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Community marks Memorial Day at Veterans Park

Meridian Star - 5/25/2024

May 24—Military families, veterans and members of the community gathered at the East Mississippi Veterans Park Friday to mark Memorial Day with a ceremony remembering fallen soldiers.

Jeff Summerlin, president of the East Mississippi Veterans Foundation, which oversees the park, said the event was an opportunity to honor the men and women who paid the price for the freedoms American citizens enjoy.

"It is because of these heroes that we can enjoy the opportunities and freedoms we often take for granted," he said.

Since World War I, 244 Lauderdale County natives have died serving their country, Summerlin said, and Friday's event was a chance to recognize their service and sacrifice as well.

"To truly honor their lives, we must share their stories with others and ensure their memories will live on forever," he said.

Lt. Col. Eric "Jason" McElhenny, who serves as executive officer of the Mississippi Air National Guard 186th Air Refueling Wing at Key Field, said Mississippi has a long history of sending sons and daughters to serve in the military. One such person was Lt. Waverly Ray, a native of Batesville and a member of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, who jumped into Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944.

The next day, McElhennny said, Ray was ordered to attack the German position and went ahead of his company to scout the terrain.

"While he was conducting recon in the area, he heard German voices on the other side of the hedgerow. He used the skills he learned in the woods of Mississippi to creep over that hedgerow," he said. "There he saw eight German soldiers standing around a map table talking on the radio."

After demanding the Germans' surrender and being fired upon, Ray killed ten German soldiers while loosing half an ear to a bullet that ricocheted off his helmet. In addition to capturing valuable German intelligence, Ray had also managed to kill the general in command of the German forces in the area along with his entire command staff.

In September 1944, Ray was shot and killed by a sniper, but his actions and legacy live on, McElhenny said, just as the legacies of the thousands of other Americans killed in action live on. But the question remains of why, he said. Why, throughout the course of the nation's history, have so many been willing to sacrifice their lives for their country?

"William Tyler Page penned what was later called the American Creed as to why he loved this country so much. He elegantly expressed his thoughts this way: 'I believe in the United States of America as a government of the people, by the people, for the people; whose just powers are derived from the consent of the governed, a democracy and a republic a sovereign nation of many sovereign states; a perfect union, one and inseparable' established upon those principles of freedom, equality, justice and humanity for which American patriots sacrificed their lives and fortunes,'" McElhenney said.

"Page goes on to say, 'I therefore believe it is my duty to my country to love it, to support its constitution, to obey its laws, to respect its flag and to defend it against all enemies,'" he said. "And I find it difficult to add anything else to Page's words."

This Memorial Day, McElhenny said his challenge to the community is to live in a way that upholds the values and integrity of the America so many died to defend.

Contact Thomas Howard at thoward@themeridianstar.com

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