Col. Jack Usrey, United States Army, served as speaker May 24 during the University of Tennessee at Martin’s annual Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony on the main campus. Usrey graduated from UT Martin in 1991 and has served in the military for more than 30 years. He is currently senior adviser to the adjutant general at Tennessee National Guard Headquarters in Nashville.
After members of Union City’s Jones-Walker VFW Post 4862 posted the colors outside the Boling University Center and UT Martin Chancellor Keith Carver welcomed audience members, Usrey reminded those in attendance to think not only of the importance of Memorial Day throughout history but also of the individual stories of heroes who have given their lives for our country.
“During my 12-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2011, we lost 144 heroes. Part of my responsibility was casualty operations during that year, and I have a three-by-five (inch) index card that I keep on the table in my office today of every one of those 144 heroes,” he said. “I think about them almost daily, and the others we have lost in other operations I have been on. I will never forget them, and I will never forget their stories because the stories are what is important.”
Usrey told the crowd of men and women who served alongside him on various battlefields throughout his career and of the sacrifices they made to protect not only their country but their fellow service members. Many of these comrades-in-arms were young and had hardly begun their own lives before giving them in service for another.
Usrey then painted the picture of a scene not often witnessed by civilians – a battlefield memorial service.
“We conduct a memorial service for every hero we send home, no matter what. No one leaves our theater of combat without being recognized,” he said. “A large formation stands as a Humvee moves slowly toward the back of an airplane that has its gate down. … Everything we do is intentional and precise because of the mission that we have at that moment. When the Humvee stops, pallbearers from that unit where the hero fought slowly pull the flag-draped coffin off the back of the Humvee, and they turn toward the plane. Staged in front of the coffin are the fallen hero’s leadership. We bring them in by helicopter. Nothing is more important than a proper farewell.
“There’s an honor guard holding the American colors, and on that staff there are 190 battle streamers, one for all of the major conflicts recognized by our military. … It is hard to handle, even on a good day,” Usrey continued. “(The pallbearers) start marching toward the plane, and as they approach it, the chaplain steps onto the plane and the honor guard with the colors take a 90 degree turn to the right … so that as the hero comes by we can lower the colors and give our last pledge of respect to the man or woman we are sending home.
“During one particular ceremony, we were hit by a wind storm on the airfield. The soldier that was carrying the colors was struggling as he was walking in front of the hero’s coffin. … As they turned right to set up, he was doing all he could do to hold those colors in the right position. … Without a single command, two soldiers broke away from our formation and ran toward their brother and stood behind him, and they leaned in so that the colors were where they needed to be when our hero came by,” Usrey said. This picture of determination to show honor and respect for a fallen hero is one Usrey says will never leave his mind and will always remind him of the importance of each and every hero’s story.
“Stories are what keep us who we are. We have to always remember, and we have to keep telling their stories, and we can never forget their names,” he concluded.
Following the annual ceremony was the installation of a battlefield cross outside the university’s Paul Meek Library. The cross, donated to the university by members of the 83rd Infantry Division, Dixie Chapter, will remain to honor the nation’s fallen heroes for years to come.
In his remarks, Carver explained that the memorial’s components – a trooper’s rifle, helmet and combat boots – indicate the importance of remembering each fallen service member. The helmet stands for the fallen hero, the inverted rifle symbolizes a pause in battle to allow time for prayer for the fallen, and the boots symbolize the service member’s final march in one last battle.
The university also opened a new Veteran’s Lounge to the public after relocating the lounge to room 131 of Gooch Hall from its previous home in the Boling University Center. This new space will allow a place for student-veterans and active service members to congregate and support each other through the transition to college life. The bust of Marine Capt. Brent Morel, a Martin native and 1999 UT Martin graduate who gave his life in Iraq in 2004, has also been relocated to this new lounge area after spending many years standing guard in the Paul Meek Library.
For more information, contact the UT Martin Office of University Relations at 731-881-7612.