By Michelle Key and Hannah Lester
The cities of Auburn and Opelika both held memorial services on Monday, to honor and remember servicemen and women that lost their lives in service to their country. Flags were flown at half-mast, the national anthem was sung and tears flowed from hearts wounded by memories as Mayors Ron Anders, Auburn, and Gary Fuller, Opelika, led their respective ceremonies.
“There is nothing more precious than our freedom,” said Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller. “Today I want to remind you that Memorial Day is a time to honor, remember and be grateful to the men and women of our military that gave the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.”
Following a prayer, the singing of the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance, Fuller introduced the guest speaker, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Mike Horsefield. Horsefield, a graduate of Auburn University, retired from the navy in 2012 after serving 27 years as a navy pilot.
“Military families repeatedly endure long deployments, whose outcomes are often uncertain,” Horsefield said. “The military spouse has to be both mom and dad for the kids for long difficult stretches of time … sometimes, the active-duty spouse doesn’t come home.”
Horsefield was a Casualty Assistance Calls Officer (CACO). As a CACO, he was trained to assist the families of servicemen and women that died while serving.
He recounted a chance encounter while on vacation, with a grieving mother of Navy pilot, Ensign Stephen Pontell, who died in 1989 while making his first landing on the USS Lexington, an accident Horsefield had studied as part of his job in aircraft aviation.
While talking with Stephen’s mother, Horsefield said he realized that he knew exactly who this woman was. She also shared with him that Pontell’s brother, Darin, was a senior at the Naval Academy. He offered them an opportunity to ask questions about Stephen’s accident, a moment that brought the family some comfort.
“Stephen was in my heart then, and he’s in my heart now,” Horsefield said.
Horsefield shared that sometime later while in Sweden, in the days following Sept. 11, 2001, a friend told him that they had lost a Navy officer in the attack on the Pentagon.
Horsefield said that he inquired as to who the friend was, and the man replied, ‘Well, it was our squadron intelligence officer, a guy named Darin Pontell.’ Lt. J.G. Darin Howard Pontell was only 26 when he died in the terrorist attack.
He reminded those in attendance of why days like Memorial Day are set aside as days of remembrance.
“In this country, we like to talk about our rights,” he said. “The reality is, our rights are actually privileges that have been bought and paid for by the extraordinary sacrifices by otherwise ordinary people. These privileges are not guaranteed and must be protected and earned again by each successive generation.
“A nation that cannot find such people to protect them cannot long endure. The Pontell brothers sacrificed their lives for this idea; Their parents lost everything precious to them with this sacrifice and we owe them a debt that can never be repaid.”
“Today is a day of remembrance,” said Auburn Mayor Ron Anders. “We gather here today because of so many men and women who throughout the centuries have given their lives for our freedoms. We gather to remember those heroes who are linked to our community here in Auburn and are commemorated at this very memorial with their names etched in the bricks that we stand on.”
Auburn normally holds its memorial day service indoors with a breakfast, but this year, the city chose to meet outside at the monument to keep residents safe from COVID-19.
There were six veterans represented at the service, with a photo and poster commemorating their sacrifices, Lt. Col. Mike Kosolapoff, Col. Gregory S. Townsend, Command Sgt. Maj. Bennie Adkins, Maj. Pete Turnham, Cpl. Grady Jones and Petty Officer Second Class Norm Caldwell.
“It’s clear to see that our community’s veterans have played a vital role in serving and building up the city of Auburn. I want to say thank you to each of them and to all of our veterans here today for giving back to not only your country but to your community,” Anders said. “And I would like to say a special thank you to the families of our veterans who support and sacrifice so much as well.”
Each year the city of Auburn honors a “distinguished veteran” during the ceremony. This year, the city chose Dr. James E. Witte — a professor of aviation management at Auburn University, the chair of the Department of Aviation and a 26-year veteran.
Witte was drafted in 1964 to the United States Army and as he put it, “that began a 26-year period of me and the army trying to trick each other.”
It all began when Witte tried to gain a medical discharge by buying a back brace. He told the reception station he needed a medical discharge.
“When you report to Fort Knox, Kentucky, you tell your new platoon sergeant that you need to go to the hospital and I’ll process on a medical discharge and I said, ‘boy this is great.’”
Of course, Witte was not medically discharged. He met his new platoon sergeant who immediately took his back brace and said he’d hold onto it for three days.
“As far as I know today, [seargeant] still has my back brace,” Witte said.
Witte shared the humor from his 26 years in the army, the ups and downs. He chose to re-enlist and was sent to Europe.
“I ran around Europe for a while and went to the first sergeant and said, “Tom, how can I go back to the states?’” Witte said. “This is what I want to do. Tom said, ‘Well, Witte, you can go to OCS.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he said, ‘Officer Candidate School.’ I said, ‘That’s back in the states, right?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Good. I want to go.’”
After OCS, the Army asked candidates who would like to be a pilot and Witte volunteered.
“This is another time that I got to trick the Army,” he said. “I said, ‘I do.’ See they didn’t know that I had been a pilot since 1957. So the idea of flying Bird Dogs and Beavers and Otters and Twin Beeches, I’m your guy. I’m already there. So, they sent me to helicopter school. I didn’t know anything about helicopters.”
Following helicopter school, the Army sent Witte to a maintenance officer test pilot program.
“Towards the end of that they said, ‘Well, it’s time for you to go to Vietnam.’ And I said, ‘Oh goody.’”
After his years in Vietnam, the Army asked Witte to attend Arabic Language School. Which then allowed them to send him to Saudi Arabia.
But Witte was not allowed to take his family with him, so he asked for a different location and the Army sent him to Teran, Iran.
“The Army got me on that one,” he said.
Witte spent time in Central America, after Iran. After a tour in Panama, Witte got married to his wife of 34 years.
“The two of us left for Tokyo, Japan, and that’s where we set up our first home,” Witte said. “We’re still together. It’s amazing. I have no idea why that woman has stuck with me that long. We retired after that tour in Japan.”
Although Witte humorously referred to his time in the Army and joked about himself and the military constantly tricking one another, he clearly left his mark.
Witte was awarded 29 air medals, two bronze stars, Pakistani Army Aviator wings and the Vietnamese cross of gallantry over his 26 years.
“Today we’re assembled together to celebrate this thing called Memorial Day,” he said. “Memorial Day is a time of reflection, it’s a time of remembrance. It’s a time to be thankful for the gifts that we enjoy in life, no matter how big those gifts are or how small. It’s a time to recognize that we are a free people. We are ruled only by ourselves. We are a people who will never abandon our country, our way of life, nor will we abandon our faith in our Maker. No matter how hard the forces of evil try to defeat us, we will survive and we will prosper.”