When it comes to the last Monday in May, many Americans take a viewpoint similar to what Laurence Christian once had.
“Growing up, Memorial Day really had no special meaning for me, other than it was a day off,” Bethel Park’s municipal manager acknowledged. “I remember the days of barbecues and parties. It did not hold the meaning it does today.”
A career in the U.S. Army, in which he rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, contributed to changing Christian’s perspective.
“What I have come to understand – for those who have lost a soldier, a sailor, an airman or Marine in combat – Memorial Day is sometimes too personal to share,” he said. “The memories of those lost are difficult to bring to the surface. But sharing is what keeps their memory alive.”
Christian served as guest of honor for Bethel Park’s Memorial Day ceremony, held at the Veterans Memorial in front of the municipal building and preceding a patriotic parade for the occasion.
“To those of us left behind, we assume the charge of remembrance and of sharing. We remember the places. We remember the faces. We remember their might-have-beens. We remember their could-have-beens,” Christian said. “We remember the memories of so many lost, and collectively, we remember their sacrifice.”
Monday’s ceremony helped mark the 21st anniversary of the Veterans Memorial, which lists the names of Bethel Park residents who lost their lives in wars from the Revolution to Iraq. As part of the proceedings, Christian joined Mayor Jack Allen in placing a wreath at the base of the monument.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the ceremony last year, so it’s extra special to have it here again this year,” the mayor said in welcoming those in attendance on what turned out to be a warm, sunny morning.
An Army Security Agency veteran of the Vietnam era and former American Legion Post 760 commander, Allen spoke further about special occasions dedicated to military personnel.
“Armed Forces Day is for those still in their uniform,” he said. “Veterans Day is for those who hung up their uniform. And Memorial Day is for those who never made it out of their uniform.”
He thanked the volunteers who helped organize the ceremony, along with U.S. Navy veteran Daniel McPoyle for the occasion’s flags and flagpoles, and Duprees Root 88 Flowers and Garden Center for the donation of flowers and plants.
Among the guests who spoke briefly was U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Mt. Lebanon, a Marine Corps veteran.
“In my job, for the last three years, I’ve had the chance to meet a lot of Gold Star families, too many, really,” he said, referencing the nationwide nonprofit created to provide honor, hope and healing to those grieving any military loss.
“They never ask for anything material, any kind of thing from the government. They just ask that we do everything we can to remember their loved ones. They don’t want to feel like their son or daughter is ever going to be forgotten,” Lamb said. “So the fact that all of you would come out here and stand, even in the back, and be part of this ceremony is really honoring exactly what it is these families need to be able to put one foot in front of the other and go on without their loved ones.”
A fellow former Marine, state Sen. Devlin Robinson, R-Bridgeville, provided a history lesson about the origin of dog tags, the military’s identity-revealing oval discs, with Civil War soldiers.
“In their final moments, they wrote their names and their addresses on the inside of their jackets, so that they might be able to have a gravestone with their name on it and a letter home to their families, to tell them not to expect them home,” Robinson said. “Those who survived took it one step further and began decorating those graves, some of them unmarked.
“Today, so many generations later,” he continued, “I look out a beautiful memorials and crowds of people who show up for Memorial Day to observe and pay their respects for those who came before them and guaranteed our way of life.”
Among those showing up for Bethel Park’s observance were Christian’s wife, Navy veteran Anne Marie Christian, and father-in-law, Army veteran John Regan, just two of many of Laurence’s relatives to serve their country.
He offered a quote attributed to Gen. Douglas MacArthur: “The soldier, above all others, prays for peace, for it is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest scars of war.”
“These wounds and scars are unseen, but yet lay a heavy toll on those who bear their weight,” Christian reflected. “I feel blessed to be a part of a military family that allows these memories to be shared and the burden lessened.”
During his 32 years as a Peters Township resident, Dr. Walter Schrantz has attended many local Memorial Day observances at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 764.
“I don’t recall the last time a healthcare provider has presented this address,” he said Monday while serving as the event’s keynote speaker.
An orthodontist whose practice is within walking distance of Post 764, Schrantz spoke as a U.S. Navy Reserves commander who, among other medically oriented duties, was mobilized last year in support of what he called the war against COVID-19.
“And war it was, indeed,” he observed, only not on the battlefield. “This enemy was unseen but just as lethal, compromising our daily lives that we often take for granted.”
In 2020, the pandemic interrupted the post’s long-standing annual tradition of organizing a Memorial Day parade and hosting a program of remembrance.
“For many in our nation, this Memorial Day weekend will be like a breath of fresh air as more and more of this past year’s restrictions are lifted across the U.S., marking a moment of needed relief for many of our fellow Americans,” Dom DeFranco, past Post 764 and VFW state commander, said in opening the program that followed a festive parade that wrapped up in the post parking lot.
“While there is an air of elation around us, let us take time to give pause and reflect, and honor our fallen brothers and sisters, reminding everyone of the sacrifices that secured the freedom we enjoy,” he continued. “May we continue to honor their legacy, living lives worthy of those who laid down their lives for us.”
Schrantz, who served in the U.S. Marine Corps and Marine Corps Reserves prior to his Naval commission, also spoke of the fallen.
“Despite differences in color, faith and religion, they all have possessed several fundamental qualities: courage, pride and a dedication to duty,” he said. “They are equals who responded in an extraordinary way in the face of adversity and death.”
The Post 764 life member discussed the history of Memorial Day, from its origins honoring casualties of the Civil War.
“In Charleston, S.C., freed slaves began decorating the graves of both Union and Confederate soldiers, out of respect for the Union troops, hoping the same would occur in the North,” Schrantz said. “This led to the first formal Memorial Day, observed in Waterloo, N.Y., on May 5, 1866.”
Once known as Decoration Day and traditionally celebrated May 30, Memorial Day became an official federal holiday in 1971, on the last Monday of each May.
“My fervent hope is that we can continue to gather this way for generations to come, for you see, it’s vitally important that we, as a nation, remember,” Schrantz said. “Despite all the medals, ribbons and monuments, nothing can adequately comfort those left behind weeping.”
He acknowledged the veterans and active members of the military who were in attendance.
“You have contributed mightily to making our armed forces the most effective in the world. Thank you,” he said. “And thanks to your families for their patience and understanding while you served, often overlooked but not without our utmost respect for shouldering the load and keeping the home fire burning. I can say unequivocally that without your support and love, we would be lost.”
In keeping with the theme of remembrance, DeFranco told the audience May 28 marked 50 years since the helicopter carrying U.S. Army Capt. Paul Urquhart was shot down and crashed near the Vietnam-Laos border. In 2019, a sign in Urquhart’s honor was posted at the intersection of Old Oak and Oakwood roads, near where the Washington & Jefferson College graduate once lived.
On a positive note, post member Dan Bench announced the local winners of two VFW essay contests.
Patriot’s Pen, for students in sixth through eighth grades, had the 2020-21 theme of “What is patriotism to me?” Allison Bentz, Christopher McCay and Jack Fazio placed first through third, respectively. Additionally, Allison took the top spot in Pennsylvania District 24, and Jack was third.
The theme of Voice of Democracy, for ninth- through 12th-graders, was “Is this the country the founders envisioned?” Joseph Wateska was the Post 764 winner and finished second in the district. Zach Byers placed second locally, Katelyn Stokan was third at the post, first in District 24 and sixth at the state level.
As a Zumba-instructing recent mother barely out of her 20s, Peters Township resident Jocelyn Blystone had little reason to suspect that what she found during a breast self-examination would be serious.
Neither did her doctors.
“I had to see three radiologists before I finally got a biopsy,” she recalled. “I was young and healthy, and they kind of thought it was probably related to nursing or the pregnancy and hormones. I just had a feeling, though, that something wasn’t right.”
Her diagnosis turned out to be Stage 2 triple-negative cancer, a particularly aggressive form that required chemotherapy, radiation and surgery.
“I went on to do a clinical trial for a year, and then I did the follow-ups, with monitoring and doing scans,” she reported. “And everything stayed clear, which was great.”
For June 6, National Cancer Survivors Day, Blystone and her husband, Bart, have extra reason to celebrate.
“Around the two-year mark,” she said, following her 2018 diagnosis, “my oncologist cleared me to try to get pregnant again. I’m due June 19.”
In the meantime, she is participating a project by Pittsburgh’s Cancer Caring Center to collect photos of survivors to commemorate Survivors Day. The center offers a variety of free services and strives to offer hope to those who receive diagnoses, even if the odds seem to be stacked completely against them.
In 2014, Stacy Hurt of South Fayette Township learned she had Stage 4 colorectal cancer, a condition that theoretically carried an exceptionally low survival rate. Having beaten the long odds, she has become a tireless advocate in convincing others that they can do the same.
“I tell everyone that until we have reason to believe otherwise, we are going to beat cancer,” Hurt said. “It’s a mindset. It’s an attitude. We’re going to do everything that we can physically. We’re going to do everything that we can emotionally and mentally.
“And I tell people, don’t look at statistics,” she continued. “That number does nothing for us, so why should we focus on it?”
For Bethel Park resident Joe Spadacene, his focus is on how fine he feels these days, after what he went through starting in late 2009.
“I was, just before Christmas, shaving, and I felt a lump. I felt like I had a swollen gland. They gave me an antibiotic, and it didn’t work,” he recalled, and so he eventually had a biopsy taken. “It turned out to be cancer of the salivary glands.”
Spadacene underwent surgery to remove the glands, followed by chemotherapy and radiation, and he required a feeding tube through 2011.
He has nothing but praise for his UPMC oncologists, Drs. Ronald Fierro and radiologist Robert Werner, and for the health system’s Head and Neck Cancer Survivorship Clinic, led by nurses Deborah Dongilli and Sharon Welch.
“They’ve been through it. They’ve seen hundreds of patients, so they are a wealth of knowledge,” Spadacene said. “If you have an issue, you don’t have to wait for the meeting. You just email them, and they’ll help you.”
Support has been a major factor in his life adjustments.
“You do have effects that last forever, and you just don’t know what to expect,” he said. “But when you go to these groups and you talk to other people going through the same ordeal, they share tips with you.”
One of his long-term effects is a dry mouth, and he has learned that simple practices such as sucking lemon drops, chewing gum and consuming drinks containing aloe can help considerably.
“Mentally, you just accept what you can’t do anymore,” he advised. “We go out to dinner, and I watch my son eat a steak. And I don’t think I’ve had a steak in 11 years, because you can’t swallow it. So you do what you do. You get something that goes down easy.”
For her part, Hurt is active in the Cancer Caring Center’s continuing efforts to lend support.
“Something I participated in that was really neat was a Zoom call about ‘Radical Remission,’” she said, referencing Dr. Kelly Turner’s book subtitled “Surviving Cancer Against All Odds.”
“There was a group of us, all different kinds of cancers, with advanced-stage metastatic cancers. We talked about our strategies and tactics to overcome the cancer,” Hurt said. “Through the Cancer Caring Center, I was able to share with patients nationally.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the center’s staff members – including executive director Rebecca Whitlinger and Peters Township resident Jennifer Kehm, development and liaison manager – persevered by offering many services virtually, a necessity that has served to expand the reach of the Bloomfield-based nonprofit well beyond Western Pennsylvania.
“They continued and stayed the course, knowing how important this is, especially going through treatment and COVID at the same time,” Blystone said.
“They were continuing their counseling and continuing their support groups online. They’re just extremely dedicated.”
The center’s dedication extends to helping fulfill the National Cancer Survivors Day goal of demonstrating that life after a cancer diagnosis can be a reality.
“I embrace that day every year, and I just think about what it means to me to be a survivor, to continue to care for my family, to continue to be a wife, a mother, a friend, and advocate,” Hurt said. “And I treasure every single day that I’m alive.”