Opinion

Robert Ehlert, Eyes on Idaho: ‘Thank you for your service’ — the veteran cemetery version

When we are out and about or moving through an airport, most of us are more than willing to greet a veteran with a nod, a smile and a “Thank you for your service.”

It is a well-deserved social acknowledgment of the sacrifice of our military and their families.

Last year I decided to take it a step further on Memorial Day. I wanted to visit some graves of the fallen and, in my own way, say the same thing: “Thank you for your service.” During this special weekend when we enjoy our freedoms to the max, I guess it is just my way of remembering those freedoms have had a price throughout history – a price brave men and women paid for me.

It didn’t take me long on Memorial Day 2014 to locate the Field of Honor Section of Morris Hill Cemetery in Boise. There, I thanked 1st Lt. James W. “Wally” Kerley, who left his Idaho family during World War II to fight in the skies over France, where he was shot down and killed.

This year I decided to visit the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery (ISVC) on Horseshoe Bend Road in Boise to pay my respects. There are dozens interred here who made the ultimate sacrifice, including Jon Hartway and Stien Gearhart, the two Idaho Army Natonal Guard pilots killed during a training flight near Gowen Field last year.

It was not my first visit to this beautiful Foothills preserve. That came last summer when I lost a dear friend, Navy Cmdr. (Ret.) Earl Kraay, a Boise native who served a tour in Vietnam in the Army before deciding to go to Navy Officer Candidate School. When I first met him some 35 years ago in Virginia Beach, Va., Earl was a RIO (radar intercept officer) occupying the back seat of an F-14 Tomcat fighter. Think “Top Gun,” the movie starring Tom Cruise. Earl was the guy behind the pilot poised to blast “bogies” (enemy aircraft) out of the sky and then routinely land on the uneven and unreliable deck of an aircraft carrier roiling in the high seas.

After surviving all that, it was a skin cancer detected and removed by a flight surgeon years ago that resurfaced and was his undoing. Earl is in good company up there on a stunning precipice at ISVC. With a little imagination, this elevated plateau evokes the deck of an aircraft carrier plying through the seas of eternity.

Accompanying Earl on these grounds are two Medal of Honor winners and 5,000 others with veteran’s burial benefits: soldiers, sailors, aviators and their eligible family members. All of these are interred in a beautiful place worth visiting this weekend to remember the fallen.

Though you can visit anytime, at 10 a.m. Monday, ISVC will be in its colors and at attention under the supervision of James Earp, the cemetery administrator and a veteran himself. A slate of dignitaries will address the crowds, who will no doubt marvel at the thousands of flags distributed on the graves by the Treasure Valley Young Marines and donated casket flags secured by VFW Post 63 flapping in the breeze.

Besides being a most fitting memorial on Memorial Day, ISVC is home to some history. Several years ago a program called Missing in America was begun. The goal is to find, research and inter the remains of some 11,000 cremated veterans over the ages who had no one to attend to their final affairs at the time they died.

ISVC is now home to dozens of these Missing in America men and women with ties to Idaho. Among them is a World War I veteran, Alfred T. Slawson, who was born in 1899 and who died in 1973. The Veterans Administration, state agencies and funeral homes collaborated to bring them “home.”

To those who died during their duty and to those who now have joined them in these peaceful surroundings, “Thank you for your service.”

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