Fayette County

Memorial Day at Camp Nelson: ‘remembering the price of freedom’

Crab Orchard's Tonya Pike kneels at the grave of her grandfather Charles William Elam before the Memorial Day Program at Camp Nelson National Cemetery Monday, May 30, 2016. Elam was a United States Army Veteran of the Korean War.
Crab Orchard's Tonya Pike kneels at the grave of her grandfather Charles William Elam before the Memorial Day Program at Camp Nelson National Cemetery Monday, May 30, 2016. Elam was a United States Army Veteran of the Korean War.

Heather French Henry spent Memorial Day weekend traveling to various events and listening to the radio.

Radio disc jockeys touted local sales and wished everyone a great Memorial Day weekend.

That irked French Henry.

Memorial Day is more than just the start of summer, back-yard barbeques and great deals on cars, said French Henry, the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs and former Miss America.

“It’s about remembering the price of freedom,” French Henry told a crowd of several hundred Monday at Camp Nelson National Cemetery at its annual Memorial Day ceremony. French Henry was the keynote speaker for the more than one-hour program that included musical performances from multiple singers including Kelly Casey, a former “American Idol” contestant, a rifle salute and the playing of “Taps.”

Our heroes should never be forgotten. We have to show our gratitude.

French Henry, the deputy commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs and former Miss America

Henry is the daughter of a disabled Vietnam veteran and has been a long-time veterans advocate. French Henry told the crowd that she spent the weekend thinking not of her father but of his friend and fellow Marine, Charlie Smith of Louisville.

Ron French was injured on Dec. 27, 1967, in an ambush. The elder French was evacuated but 30 men in his unit were killed in that ambush. Smith survived but Ron French never knew what happened to him.

“He had survived without knowing what had happened to his best friend,” French Henry said.

It was French Henry who found Smith — on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. on section 41E.

Smith died in a battle on Feb. 28, 1968. When she called her father to let him know, the elder French cried. But he finally got closure and was able to say good bye, French Henry said.

Years later, she met Smith’s sister after giving a speech. Smith’s sister introduced her to Charlie Smith’s son. Now, each time she visits the Vietnam Veterans Memorial she makes a rubbing of Charlie Smith’s name and texts it to his son. It’s important to show that his father’s loss was felt by more than just the Smith family, she said.

“Our heroes should never be forgotten,” French Henry said. “We have to show our gratitude.”

Greg Pattison of Nicholasville attends multiple ceremonies each year at Camp Nelson, which became a national cemetery in 1866. Pattison was a Marine during Vietnam and later served 17 years in the Navy. He was the only person to stand for two different theme songs for the two different branches of the military he served during Monday’s ceremony.

Pattison has attended other Memorial Day ceremonies at other locations — sometimes attending more than one on the same day.

“I like this one the best,” Pattison said of the Camp Nelson ceremony. “It’s in the country and it’s just beautiful out here.”

Pattison wants to attend the ceremonies long after his death. “I plan to be buried here,” he said.

Beth Musgrave: 859-231-3205, @HLCityhall

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