I have attended many Memorial Day events during my lifetime, but for several reasons, the ceremony I witnessed today in Genoa, Illinois seemed to most appropriately reflect the occasion.
After a short parade that wound its way through the city, from the Veterans Home to the Genoa Township Cemetery, hundreds of local residents and some honored guests assembled for an 11:30 a.m. ceremony. The service took place beneath a grove of trees at the northwest edge of the cemetery. Memorial Day began in 1868 as “Decoration Day,” as it was set aside as a day for people to decorate the graves of soldiers who died during the Civil War. Therefore, there was no more appropriate setting in Genoa for this ceremony today.
Among several speakers at the event was Genoa Mayor, Mark Vicary. Vicary began his speech by recounting the stories of seven different men with local ties who perished during combat (see below). The men died during wars from World War I in 1918 to Operation Enduring Freedom in 2009. They fought as members of the Army, Navy, Marines and Army National Guard. The battles they fought in took place in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Although the wars these men fought in and the places they died were separated by almost 100 years and many thousands of miles, the soldiers had one thing in common: they all died young. Five of the seven were only 19 or 20 years old, and the longest-living soldier memorialized in Mayor Vicary’s speech was only 30 when he died.
It seemed appropriate to me that the ceremony, which began under a light drizzle and finished beneath a steady rain, would include the playing of the official songs of the five military branches by the Genoa-Kingston High School band. Mayor Vicary had just attended the graduation ceremony at Genoa-Kingston High School the previous week, where students who were heading off to join the armed services had been recognized. He pointed out that though we hope and pray that these young people will return home safely, there is a chance they might not.
As the high school band played, flanked by the old veterans representing wars from long ago, I reflected on the fact that the majority of those who die in wars, whom we remember on this holiday, do so at the very beginning of their adult lives. Most of them never got the opportunity to gather with their children and grandchildren at such an event. Many never married, or owned a home, or saw their children graduate high school. They sacrificed those experiences when they served their country in combat and paid the ultimate price.
One of the other speakers who addressed the crowd in Genoa today quoted General George S. Patton, who said, “It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died. Rather we should thank God such men lived.” And while I understand the attempt to put a positive spin on such an occasion, I don’t see how we can not be saddened that we live in a world where it is still necessary for young men and women to die in wars and not get their opportunity to enjoy all of the experiences that come with a long and full life.
Yes, we should honor and respect these young people who gave up everything, but we should also mourn them. And that is what Memorial Day has been set aside for Americans all around the country to do—in the biggest cities and the smallest towns, from sea to shining sea.
Below are the stories of the seven men whom Genoa Mayor, Mark Vicary, remembered during his Memorial Day speech on May 27, 2019. I want to thank Mayor Vicary for the research that he did in preparation for this day, and for letting me have his notes after the ceremony so that I could share this information with you here.
World War I
Bayard Brown – Bayard was born May 21, 1891 in Genoa, IL and served in the 26th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division, of the American Expeditionary Force. Lt. Brown took command of his company after all of his senior officers had been killed. He organized for a counterattack, and held his command all day after being wounded near Soissons, France. In the fight for Hill 212 in the Argonne region, he led his company forward until being mortally wounded within 50 yards of the enemy position.
Lt. Brown was awarded the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. He died from the wounds he received in action in the Second Battle of the Marne on October 7, 1918 in Champagne-Ardenne, France. He was 27 years old.
Bayard Brown American Legion Post 337 and Bayard Brown Auxiliary 337 at the Genoa Veterans Home, 311 South Washington Street, are named in his honor.
World War II
James Leonard Medine – James was born June 30, 1924 in Genoa, Illinois. He was inducted into the U.S. Army on June 2, 1944 and took training at Fort Meade, Maryland before being sent overseas. Medine was killed in action in France on December 12, 1944. He had been severely wounded by artillery fragments. James Medine was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star Medals. He was only 20 years old when he died.
James Robert Page – James was born June 22, 1947 from Genoa and was in the United States Marine Corp. James was a Private First Class, Rifleman. His unit was “Alpha” Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines, 3rd Marine Division. On May 13, 1967 Page came under hostile small arms fire and died of his wounds on June 11, 1967. James Page was awarded a Purple Heart. He was only 19 years old when he died.
Jessie Gerald Poe – Jessie was born June 15, 1948 from Kingston. Jessie was a Sargent in the United States Army; his unit assignment was the 173rd Airborne Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry, “A” Company. On June 6, 1968 Poe was in South Vietnam located in the Binh Dinh Province when he was hit by air artillery, instantly succumbing to his wounds. Jessie Page was awarded a Purple Heart. He was only 19 years old when he died.
Operation Desert Shield
Kevin John Hills – Kevin was born on November 11, 1971 and was from Genoa. Kevin was a seaman apprentice in the United States Navy. On December 23, 1990, Hills died during Operation Desert Shield in the United Arab Emirates. He was only 19 years old when he died.
Operation Enduring Freedom
Matthew Martinek – Matthew was born on December 7, 1988. He grew up in Genoa and moved to Bartlett after his freshman year at Genoa-Kingston High School. Matthew was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska.
On September 4, 2009 six soldiers of Bravo Company were traveling in a vehicle that was disabled by a roadside bomb in the Paktika province of Afghanistan. The leader, 34-year-old 2LT Darryn Andrews, had everyone dismount to organize a defense. The Lieutenant saw the Rocket Propelled Grenade coming and pushed three of his soldiers to the ground, absorbing the blast himself and dying. The blast wounded the others and the squad them came under small arms fire. One round hit Martinek in the back of his head.
He died seven days later on the 8th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attack, at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany. Matthew Martinek was awarded the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was only 20 years old when he died.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Brian Donatus Slavenas – Brian was born December 19, 1972 and was from Genoa. He was a Second Lieutenant assigned to Foxtrot Company, 106th Aviation Battalion, Army National Guard.
On November 2, 2003, Slavenas was co-piloting a U.S. Army Ch-47 Chinook helicopter. Insurgents hiding in a palm grove near the Iraqi city of Fallujah fired two missiles into the Chinook helicopter. The helicopter crashed, killing Brian and 16 other soldiers. Twenty more soldiers were injured in the attack. The pilots of the helicopter were able to slow its descent as it was going down. Their brave actions saved numerous lives. Brian Slavenas was awarded, posthumously, the Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He was 30 years old when he died.
Brian’s father, Ron, was in attendance at the May 27, 2019 Memorial Day ceremony in Genoa and was acknowledged by Mayor Vicary during his speech. Mayor Vicary pointed out that Brian Slavenas is buried in the Genoa Cemetery, 100 feet away from where he was speaking at that moment.