By Jody Fuller
I was so incredibly honored a few months ago when I was asked to be the speaker at Opelika’s Memorial Day services. I was even more honored when I got behind the podium and looked out at the sea of veterans in the crowd, because I know Memorial Day is as sacred a day to them as it is to me. Most of us have brothers and sisters who never made it home.
I’ve spoken to everyone from coroners at a convention in Orange Beach to troops on the Pakistani border in Afghanistan. I’ve spoken in 28 states and 14 countries. No sweat. It’s easy.
Memorial Day was different. I was nervous, and I choked up repeatedly. Although there is often a serious side, my routines are usually packed with humor. That can be done at Veterans Day events, which celebrate and honor living veterans; however, on Memorial Day, we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
I wanted to do justice to the fallen, many of whom I knew personally. My two soldiers were hit by a roadside bomb on April 4, 2004. One died instantly and the other died three days later. During my research, I discovered that Dusty Hiller, a young man from Opelika, was killed the same day. What are the chances of that happening? That brought everything full circle. It brought things home.
I got very little sleep the night before. I was up at 4:45 as I attempted to craft the perfect speech. The festivities in Opelika didn’t kick off until 10:00, but I had other business to attend to beforehand.
My friend and Medal of Honor recipient Command Sergeant Major Bennie Adkins was being recognized at Auburn’s Annual Mayor’s Memorial Day Breakfast at The Hotel at Auburn University & Dixon Conference Center, so being there was a no-brainer. I was also able to take along two friends: WWII veteran Earl Sumners and Miss America 2013 Mallory Hagan.
After a few words with CSM Adkins after the event, Earl and I slipped out so we could get back to Opelika. I kind of needed to be there. Mallory went to the lake with some friends.
We made it to city hall with just a few minutes to spare, which is really the story of my life—just in time. I started out with just a little humor, including a couple of sweet notes I got from children while I was deployed. In addition to the wonderful veterans and their families, it was great to see many friends in the crowd, as well.
I never did craft the perfect speech, but I did have bullet points on a cheat sheet. The funny thing is that I seldom looked at it. I just talked. The only time I really did was when I quoted John 15-13.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
I will never forget the fallen and am so thankful for all who serve. I’m also thankful for both Mayor Fuller and Mayor Ham for their commitment to and support of local veterans. We are fortunate in many ways to call Opelika-Auburn home.
Many people see Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer, a long weekend, or a day at the lake. It’s not. It’s so much more than that, but that’s ok. There were a few empty tables in Auburn. Up until last week, it bothered me that more people didn’t show up for such patriotic events. However, after preparing for this speech my outlook has changed. Men and women have died to give these folks the right to spend this most sacred of patriotic holidays any way in which they please. That’s what freedom is all about. With that being said, Miss America proved that both can be done. Honor the fallen. Never forget.
Jody Fuller is from Opelika. He is a comic, speaker, writer and soldier with three tours of duty in Iraq. He is also a lifetime stutterer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, please visit www.jodyfuller.com.