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'They made the supreme sacrifice': Memorial Day ceremony honors those who didn't make it home

Veteran kneels before tombstone
A Veteran pays homage to a fallen comrade prior to Monday's Memorial Day ceremony in Wood National Cemetery, on the grounds of the Milwaukee VA.

Arthur Thinnes died when the USS Oklahoma was bombed in the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, his remains entombed, along with hundreds of other sailors, on the bottom of the harbor.

But Thinnes came home 80 years later, after his remains were positively identified. He was interred in Wood National Cemetery in Milwaukee in October 2021 during a private ceremony.

It was the work of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency that made the homecoming possible. The organization, led by Kelly McKeague, continues to work tirelessly to do the same for thousands of other families whose loved ones remain unaccounted for.

“(We) endeavor to assure that the memories and the deeds of our fallen are not forgotten, and that their ultimate sacrifice was not in vain,” said McKeague, keynote speaker for Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony in Wood National Cemetery.

“Memorial Day is especially poignant for all Gold Star families. In serving those who gave of themselves with their lives, and providing solace to their families, in essence, every day is Memorial Day for … DPAA,” he said.

McKeague told the hundreds gathered in the cemetery for the annual remembrance that there are more than 81,000 U.S. service members considered missing in action, but the DPAA believes the remains of 37,000 of those can be recovered.

The DPAA works with nations around the globe and other public and private institutions to recover, identify and return those remains.

“DPAA’s mission is a national commitment, a sacred obligation and a moral imperative to fulfill a promise made not only to those … who gave the last measure, but also their families,” he said. “DPAA markers serve as a reminder to Veterans … and those in uniform today that this nation will never leave its warriors behind.”

McKeague noted that Memorial Day is set aside to remember the 1.3 million service members who died in service to their country.

“(They) made the supreme sacrifice with their lives,” he said. “Millions around the world cannot forget what these inordinate sacrifices have wrought.”

Monday’s ceremony also included speeches from:

  • Quincy McCall, director of the Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery Complex, of which Wood National Cemetery is a part.
  • Duane Honeycutt, director of the Milwaukee Regional Office of the Veterans Benefits Administration.
  • James McLain, executive director of the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.
  • David Crowley, Milwaukee County Executive.

The Milwaukee American Legion Band performed a number of patriotic tunes, including a medley saluting all branches of the U.S. armed forces.

Wreathes were placed on behalf of about a dozen military service organizations, and black balloons were released, one each for Veterans from Wisconsin who remain MIA from the Vietnam War.

The ceremony concluded with a rifle volley, taps, the singing of “God Bless America” and the raising of the American flag.

Master of ceremonies John Mercure, whose grandfathers fought in World War II, emphasized the importance of Memorial Day when he pointed out toward the sea of white headstones in the cemetery.

“Right down this way … Michelle Whitmer is buried. She was 20 years old, went off to Iraq … and never came home. She made the ultimate sacrifice. We all talk about it. She did it. And she’s right over there.

“That’s why we come out here today: To honor them, to tell their stories, so that they may never be forgotten.”