By Lorraine Connelly
Now that the weather is nice, I take daily walks with our poodle, Brody, to our local cemetery. We stop at different gravesites and silently pay homage to individuals buried there; many are military veterans. One grave in the family plot of The Houghtalings recently stood out to me — that of Corporal Colonel Harry W. Houghtaling, born in 1894, who died in France in 1918 at the age of 24. His marker reads: “Buried in France.” A casualty of WWI, Harry’s memorial lies across from the gravesite of Civil War veteran Isaac N. Hallenbeck who, a generation earlier, survived his war and died in 1920.
Approaching Memorial Day Weekend and seeing flags commemorating veterans’ gravesites, I began to explore the origins of this holiday which many associate with the start of summer activities: barbecues, picnics, trips to the beach, rather than the holiday’s true origins.
According to the Veteran Affairs website, the holiday honors the more than 620,000 soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice in the Civil War. After this brutal conflict ended, impromptu days of remembrance sprung up around the country. Waterloo, New York, held its first annual Remembrance Day in 1866. In 1868, future president James Garfield presided over the first “Decoration Day” on May 30, 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery. Supposedly, this date was chosen because flowers to be placed upon gravesites would by then be in bloom.
After WWI, The American Legion adopted the poppy flower — which bloomed on the battlefields of France — to commemorate those who had died in The Great War. And Congress was asked to designate the Friday before Memorial Day as National Poppy Day — “to honor the fallen and support the living who have worn our nation’s uniform.” To this day, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) distributes poppies during the run up to Memorial Day.
There are many ways to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and those who have served their country. The Wallingford Rotary Club is holding its 5th annual Flags for Heroes event, which overlaps with Memorial Day, during which many residents have chosen to honor someone who has served in the military. This event, however, isn’t exclusive to those in the military, past or present, but is intended to also honor those in public service — police, fire, nurses, EMTs, schoolteachers, etc. Flags to honor each designee are flown from June 14, through July 4th on Masonicare’s hillside, and culminates in a ceremony in late June when the names of commemorated heroes are read aloud.
My husband and I have participated in this event. We have honored my father-in-law, a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific Theater; my father, a naturalized citizen who served in the Army during World War II; and, several Vietnam War veterans my husband has met through his teaching of a course on the Vietnam War.
This year, we are honoring a family member we have never met: our future son-in-law’s father, John Iskyan who perished in 9/11. Of the nearly 3,000 people killed that day, 161 had ties to Connecticut. As reported in The New York Times, “Sept. 8, one day after John and Margaret Iskyan celebrated their 16th wedding anniversary, Mr. Iskyan managed to organize a 40th birthday surprise party for his wife without her knowledge.” Within 72 hours, joy and celebration had turned into mourning. At age 41, John left behind his wife, a young son, and daughter.
Over 7,000 U.S. troops have been killed in battle in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 through the end of 2018. In a post-9/11 and a post-COVID world, I’ve come to reframe my notion of what makes someone a hero. Were those who died in 9/11 victims of circumstance or heroes? For me, a hero is not one who is idealized exclusively for his or her actions or extraordinary achievements, but one who is committed to the ordinary responsibilities of everyday life; one who honors his or her obligations to family, work, and society. John’s obituary read in part, “John F. Iskyan got up regularly at 5 a.m., rode the train in from Wilton, Conn., and was at his desk in the World Trade Center by 7 a.m. He would return home at 7 or 8 p.m.” There is an eloquence in these two sentences that encapsulate John’s loyalty, dedication, and constancy — a life well-lived.
As summer approaches, it’s time to recapture the true meaning of Remembrance Day, and to honor all of those who have given themselves to others in great measure. Perhaps you, too, have an everyday hero to honor with a flag.
[You can participate in Rotary’s event at www.honoryourheroflag.com. All proceeds will support our community through local Rotary projects and grants.]
Lorraine Connelly is a writer and longtime Wallingford resident.