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‘Our duty to remember’: Memorial Day ceremonies draw attention to U.S. lives lost in wars

250,000 American flags are placed at every headstone in the Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day (U.S. Navy graphic by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Sarah Villegas)

SOMERSET, Pa. – Children of local scouting organizations ceremonially folded an American flag Monday at the Somerset County Courthouse that was then presented to Frances Thompson, of Confluence, mother of U.S. Army Pfc. Nils Thompson, who was killed by a sniper in Mosul, Iraq, in 2005.

Thompson was 19 years old and deeply religious, Somerset County Commissioner and Memorial Day mistress of ceremonies Sandra Tokar-Ickes said.

He enjoyed raising sheep, cattle, goats and chickens and helped his family operate a bed and breakfast, she said.

Immediately after the Somerset Memorial Day program ended, some people took the time to speak with Frances Thompson.

“It’s been about 20 years, but we’ve never forgotten,” one man said to her.

Lt. Col. William Szych, Frances Thompson

Lt. Col. William Szych USAF, Ret., hands a United States flag to Frances Thompson of Confluence, PA., who’s son Pvt.1st Class Nils Thompson US Army, was killed in action in Iraq in 2005, during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerset, PA., Monday, May 27, 2024.

Thompson held the folded flag to her chest.

“After all these years, it’s wonderful for Nils to be remembered,” she said. “It’s been a long time, but it feels like yesterday. For everyone to do this, I’m blessed.”

Retired Air Force Lt. Col. William Szych delivered a speech at the courthouse, encouraging the crowd of about 100 people to remember the 1.2 million Americans who died in wars throughout U.S. history.

“It’s our duty as Americans to remember the cost of our freedom,” he said. “One point two million Americans made the ultimate sacrifice. This is the cost of our freedom.”

Somerset group offers helping hand to ‘forgotten’ families of military personnel, veterans

Somerset County Military Family Support Group members comfort those who serve their nation and their loved ones in many ways.

Memorial Day ceremonies were held throughout the region Monday to honor the memory of the many American lives lost in war.

Vietnam War veteran Jim Clark carried a photo of himself smiling with two southern Vietnamese soldiers in his pocket to Sandyvale Memorial Gardens in Johnstown. Not in the photo but just as close to his heart were the names of three members of his assault helicopter unit who were killed in the war.

Clark reflected on the horrors of war going back to World War II and through the most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have been a scream to the world, ‘You can’t have war anymore,’” he said.

Dr. Dean Mickey, Sgt. Major Neil Hoffman,

Dr. Dean Mickey, a Somerset County WWII US Army veteran, receives a patriotism award from Sgt. Major Neil Hoffman, US Army National Guard, Ret., during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerset, PA., Monday, May 27, 2024.

However, decades later, Clark found himself in Vietnam, where he lost three members of his unit – and that war should have been a sign to “not let that happen again,” he said. But then decades later, more than 7,000 Americans died in Afghanistan and Iraq, he said with grief.

Clark moved to Johnstown, his wife’s hometown, from Staten Island in 2009. In Johnstown, he said he has found a great, active veterans community and memorials such as the yearly Sandyvale Memorial Day Celebration held Monday.

“The delivery of the keynote speaker was excellent,” Clark said. “I’m encouraged, uplifted.”

Flag folding

Representatives of all area scouting organizations participate in a flag folding during a Memorial Day ceremony at the Somerset County Courthouse in Somerset, PA., Monday, May 27, 2024.

Marty Kuhar, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, gave the Memorial Day speech Monday morning at Sandyvale, 80 Hickory St., Johnstown.

Sandyvale Memorial Gardens and Conservancy President Diana Kabo said Kuhar urged people in attendance to “remember the people who fought to give us freedom. They fought so we could have these picnics; we couldn’t have them without the freedom they’ve given us,’” she said.


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