Opelika, Auburn Gather on Memorial Day





The flag flew overhead. Literally, as it dangled from a crane over the fountain in Courthouse Square in Opelika.

Veterans, citizens, families and more gathered together to honor America’s fallen on May 29, 2023.

Despite microphone problems, the city rallied and presented a ceremony that well honored both Opelika’s, and the United States’, heroes.

Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller introduced the speaker for 2023, retired United States Army Police Officer and Opelika Council Member Todd Rauch.

“While serving in the Army, Todd was named Soldier of the Year for the 18th Military Police Brigade in … Germany,”  Fuller said. “During his subsequent deployment to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Rauch was awarded the Purple Heart after surviving a mortar attack and helping to save the lives of his fellow soldiers.”

Todd has made a life for himself in Opelika with his wife Ali, and they serve their community every day.

“Ladies and gentlemen, families and fellow veterans, we are gathered here as one to honor and pay tribute to the brave men and women who fought and made the ultimate sacrifice,” Todd said. “These burdens we carry come with the understanding that the destiny of self-government and the preservation of the sacred buyer of liberty is staked on the experiment and trusted to the hands of the American people.

“And it is this liberty that we love so much that ultimately belongs to the people who were willing to suffer for it. Therefore, we come together by speaking their names, recounting their acts of valor and their unwavering dedication to protecting our cherished values of liberty and democracy.”

Rauch, who shared his personal story and veteran experiences, as well as stories of those he served with, expressed the difficulty in speaking them aloud.

“These are accounts of the brave men and women from the Iraq War as we celebrate 20 years since the invasion of Iraq and the liberation of the Iraqi people,” he said.

American lives were not just lost in the Iraqi War, but in the events that led up to it — Sept. 11, 2001.

“Alabama, like so many other states, suffered the loss of its sons and daughters, individuals who embodied the values and spirit of their communities,” Rauch said. “Alabama lost four of her own when American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon.”

Opelika, too, lost three military members of its own, Rauch said, during the war.

“We remember them today, forever etching their names in our collective memory,” Rauch said.

Rauch shared stories that are unthinkable to the average American — IED’s that killed his friends, mass graves of Iraqi people, torture buildings and more.

After recounting a harrowing tale of watching a fellow soldier hit by the first documented IED, and his efforts to help protect his comrade, Rauch shared how his own unit was hit by an IED.

“Almost three months after Jeremiah’s death [the comrade hit by an IED], I too would be a casualty of the viciousness of an IED,” he said. “In the midnight hour of Aug. 21, 2003, my team was ambushed while on a walking patrol, while training Iraqi police officers … 120 mm mortar was placed underneath a fuel tanker and was remotely detonated as we walked by.

“The initial blast took out the power grid, so it was dark. Within the first 30 seconds of the bite, I had sustained an explosion blast to my right hand, a shrapnel wound that would go through my right shoulder, tearing out my rotator cuff and a gunshot wound to my right leg.

“And yet, danger was still close. As I began to grab for the only thing I had with the only hand I had, which it was on my left side, I grabbed for my knife. And at that time I heard footsteps rushing toward me and something told me they weren’t friendly.

“His breath was labored from running up to me, so I knew his proximity in the darkness … I could feel the tension of my blade as it got close to him. I could also feel hear the [sound] of his blade as it came through the air. As his blade cut down on my arm, it cut off the ID tag that it was attached to. I understood what he was trying to get at. Confirmation that he had successfully attacked U.S. soldiers.”

Rauch helped his fellow soldiers escape and evacuate following his injuries. They, and Rauch, were able to recover and lived, despite the attack.

It took a year and half for Rauch to recover, along with 12 surgeries.

“I believe Memorial Day, to me, serves as a revival,” he said. “A renewal of our commitments and values that define us as a Nation. It is important to hear heavy stories such as these as they serve as testimonies to the great work that we are in.  It is a time to recommit ourselves to this great work, whether it be the military, public service, education or any other field that can make a positive impact in our community.

“It is a time to reflect on the sacrifices of our fallen heroes and to ensure that their legacy lives on in our actions. Strengthened by their courage, hardened by their duty and born by their bravery. Let us honor the service members who fought and died upholding the values they hold so dear and by cherishing the freedoms that they’ve secured us. May their courage and sacrifice inspire us to be better, to be stronger, to stand united as one Nation, indivisible, under the banner of liberty


Auburn took time to recognize its heroes on Memorial Day.

The Auburn University Naval ROTC Color Guard posted the colors to begin the 23rd Annual Mayor’s Memorial Day Breakfast at the Auburn University Hotel Monday morning.

“Holy One, we gather this morning in your presence as a community in solemn remembrance of those who have given their lives in service to our country,” said Pastor of Union Christian Church Jeff Damon in an opening prayer. “We remember our friends and loved ones as well as those who may be strangers to us.”

While Auburn Mayor Ron Anders could not be in attendance, Mayor Pro Tem Beth Witten shared about the history of Memorial Day and why it is celebrated today.

“Today, as we’ve mentioned, marks the 23rd year that we’ve gathered for the Mayor’s Memorial Day Breakfast,” she said. “A tradition that former Mayor Bill Ham began in 1999. While this day is a day to remember those who gave their lives in defense of our freedoms, we also take this opportunity each memorial day to honor those who have served or that are currently serving in the U.S. Mili-tary.”

Each year, Auburn honors those who have served their community and this year that included both United States Navy Captain Richard “Dick” Phelan, distinguished veterans’ award, and U.S. Air Force Captain Randal J. Hudon for the Hero Remembered.

“In 2021, [Hudon] was posthumously added to the Wall of Honor at the National Air and Space Mu-seum, recognizing his commitment to aviation,” Witten said.

Hudon was an Auburn graduate and served 10 years in the military in the Air Force.

“What I learned about him was that he had an unrelenting dedication to everything he did,” said Navy Veteran and Director of the Auburn Veterans Resource Center, Paul “Puck” Esposito, who pre-sented the award.

Esposito said he was both passionate and professional, which he brought with him to Auburn.

“Just a few words that I heard over and over again about Capt. Hudon,” Esposito said. “‘It was very simple. He was as man that loved his country, he loved Auburn, he loved Auburn Aviation, he loved his faith, he loved serving his community and more than anything, he loved his family.’ Which is why it was very easy for the committee this year to select him.”

His widow, Cindy, accepted the award on his behalf.

“Randy would be honored and humbled, as am I,” she said.

U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Sam Nichols introduced Phelan, who received the Distinguished Veterans Award.

Phelan graduated from the United States Naval Academy and then went on to pilot.

Thank goodness for the Navy, for it was while he was in Pensacola that he met his wife.

Phelan also attended the Naval Post-Graduate school and attended Vietnamese Language School be-fore serving in the Vietnam War.

During this time, he received a Bronze Star.

Phelan’s move to Auburn came under command to serve as a Naval Science professor and command-ing officer of the Naval ROTC Program.

His time on the Plains was not short-lived. He also served his community well and is a former Au-burn City Council member.

“I am overwhelmed by all the kind remarks that were made about me,” Phelan said of a video that was made of his friends and family singing his praises.

The video ends with all of Phelan’s grandchildren telling him they are proud of him and love him.

During the ceremony, Auburn Veterans Scholarship Awards are also announced.

This year, Esposito presented the scholarships.

“This year, we did exceptional, we had over nine recipients of scholarships here at Auburn Universi-ty and we also applied one at Southern Union,” Esposito said.


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