Every time the United States has faced a threat around the world, UC Davis students and alumni have been among those who took up arms to defend it — even if it cost them their lives, Army veteran Jake Smith ’03 told a crowd of about 150 people outside the Memorial Union Thursday (May 24) during the campus’s annual Memorial Day Ceremony.
“They sacrificed themselves on the altar of freedom, in the pursuit of those ideals upon which our great nation was founded: truth, liberty and justice for all,” he said during his keynote address. “They paid the ultimate price to defend our country's great experiment in democracy.”
One-hundred-thirty-six Aggies have died in military service to the United States since World War I. Army ROTC cadets and student veterans read aloud each of our fallen Aggies’ names — names that also are memorialized in the pages of the Golden Memory Book and on the Gold Star Aggies Wall in the Memorial Union.
This year a new name was added: Sean Endecott Elliott, a 2009 graduate who went on to become a captain in the Marine Corps, flying variations of the C-130 plane. He was co-piloting a plane that crashed last July in a field in rural Mississippi, killing all 16 aboard: 15 Marines and a Navy corpsman.
Elliott’s parents, Cindy and John, attended Thursday’s ceremony with other family members, and were presented with a framed version of their son’s biography page in the Golden Memory Book.
John Elliott called it an honor.
“We really appreciate that people care,” he said.
He said he is glad for a change in attitude toward the military — that people who once made no distinction between U.S. foreign policy decisions and the troops who carried them out, are now able to respect and support our service members who put themselves in harm’s way.
Following the ceremony, Cindy Elliott flew back east to join Sean’s wife, Catherine, for the annual Memorial Day seminar hosted by the nonprofit Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS, in Arlington, Virginia. Sean was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery.
Roberta Taylor, Gold Star Aggie Mother of Lt. Col. Mark D. Taylor ’86, also attended Thursday’s ceremony, accompanied by Mark’s college friend Cathy Conrad ’85. Taylor, an Army surgeon, was killed by an enemy attack in Iraq in 2004.
“As we observe this Memorial Day, I encourage you to mark this day not as a day of mourning, but as a day to celebrate the lives of those who gave everything in service to our nation. Celebrate their lives, celebrate their sacrifices, and most of all, celebrate their peace, for they have earned it.” — Jake Smith ’03
‘Putting things in perspective’
Marine Corps veterans Edgar Garcia, a senior majoring in anthropology, and Joseph Wetherbee, a class of 2016 graduate who now works as an outreach program coordinator in Undergraduate Admissions, presented the framed biography page.
Wetherbee said he’s been participating in the Memorial Day Ceremony in various roles since he transferred to UC Davis in 2013. He said the weight of the day’s activities take a toll on him each year.
“It’s one of those things you’re honored to do, but you dread the day every year,” he said. “What do you say to someone who lost a child? … It puts things in perspective.”
While last week’s ceremony lasted less than an hour, the campus’s tributes to the students and alumni who gave their lives in military service will go on.
Several speakers brought attention to the fact that when the Memorial Union was dedicated in 1955, it was dedicated to the students and alumni who died in World Wars I and II. Today, that dedication extends to casualties of Korea and Vietnam, Iraq and beyond.
Student Affairs Interim Vice Chancellor Emily Galindo, whose father served in the Air Force for two decades, said she hoped the ceremony would “remind our campus community of the meaning behind the ‘memorial’ in Memorial Union and recognize an important legacy built by UC Davis students.”