A memorable 40th Memorial Day

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Scott T. Sturkol
  • U.S. Air Force Expeditionary Center Public Affairs
I was only five days old when I had my first Memorial Day 40 years ago. I certainly wasn't old enough to understand the depth of meaning of Memorial Day then , but now I do.

On May 25, 1969, a lot was happening in the United States. In San Diego, the Chicago Cubs beat the San Diego Padres 1-0 in a major league baseball game. Rock legend Jimi Hendrix played at a pop festival in Santa Clara, Calif., and the band Led Zeppelin held a concert that day in Columbia, Md. Actress Anne Heche was born that day and the movie "Midnight Cowboy" opened in theaters across the U.S.

Also that day, in the world, a military coup overthrew the government in Sudan and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu assumed personal leadership of the National Social Democratic Front at its inaugural meeting in Saigon.

Additionally on May 25, 1969, near the Cambodian border, Army Sgt. James P. Duffy Jr. died in combat. Sergeant Duffy was just shy of his 20th birthday when he died. Born in June 1948, Sergeant Duffy was from Brunswick Township in Medina County, Ohio, according to records at Medina County veteran services. He earned the Purple Heart, Combat Infantryman's Badge, National Defense Service Medal, Republic of Vietnam Service Medal and the Vietnam Campaign Medal.

I was born on the same day a hero gave his life for his country. That's really all that needs to be said because it is an honor to associate my life in some small way with a hero. But there is more.

When I left for Memorial Day weekend 2009, I had only two major thoughts running through my mind. First, I thought about turning 40 years old. It's a landmark birthday and I was looking forward to spending time with family and friends. My family and I first went to Boston for one day and toured the city. Then we went to Vermont's Northeast Kingdom to camp for a couple of days by a beautiful lake. It was a lot of fun and provided memories for years to come.

My second major thought through the weekend had settled on Sergeant Duffy. He's someone I've never known and I know nothing about his family other than he comes from Ohio. I just focused on how he is a hero and the fact that I was able to enjoy my 40th birthday thanks to the sacrifice he made for our freedoms as Americans.

In a way, it was like I carried him with me as I celebrated my birthday. He was there when I saw Boston Harbor for the first time, and when I saw the old statehouse in downtown Boston where Crispus Attucks was killed by British guns as the movement for the Revolutionary War began in the late 1700s.

Sergeant Duffy was there with me on that lake in Northern Vermont as I steered a kayak across the calm waters listening to the peace of nature and when I gave a multitude of hugs to my grandchildren. He was along for the ride in heart and in spirit and I can't thank him enough for helping make my 40th birthday something to remember.

I've always been a believer in honoring those who have given their lives in service to our nation - this Memorial Day was no different. Those heroes gave up everything so I could have what I have and preserve the one thing I treasure the most - freedom.

Freedom is not free. There are many of my fellow Airmen and service members from all the armed forces on the front lines protecting our freedoms every day. They are people like Sergeant Duffy and I am honored to serve with them.

As I go on to other birthdays in the future, I'll remember my 40th as one of the best. Not only was it my 40th Memorial Day, but it was also the most memorable, thanks to family, friends and heroes like Sergeant Duffy.