Memorial Day Survivor Story

Memorial Day Survivor Story - Wish Rock Relaxation

With temperatures warming and school days coming to an end, Memorial Day is upon us.  I find it hard to believe that over 1/3 of 2018 is in the books.  It's also a good time to reflect on exactly what Memorial Day is all about.  As we age, it takes on different meanings.  When I was younger, it meant the beginning of a long-anticipated summer break, hot and humid summer days bookended by double practices in the pool/land honing my craft.  As I got older and entered college (US Naval Academy), Memorial Day again kicked off the summer with us climbing Herndon to end plebe year and later ring dance and graduation. 

memorial day picnic festivities

Memorial Day also began to take on a new meaning as I was surrounded by many impressive leaders and the immense sacrifice that they've made for this country.  I think it's easy to get distracted by a free long weekend from work or massive sales at most major retailers (we've got you covered here too--use code MEMORIAL10 to get 10% OFF your entire order through Monday).  I challenge you to take a few moments to think about the many freedoms that you hold dear (and sometimes take for granted) and the standard of living that you have become accustomed to.  Remember the men and women who have served this country and made the ultimate sacrifice in order to ensure your way of life.

Captain Denver Key, USN

When I was in my Youngster (Sophomore) Year at the Academy, one of the core classes that I was required to take was Physics.  As an English Major and someone who wasn't that strong in science and engineering, physics was a more challenging course for me.  As luck would have it, my professor was an unassuming and happy-go-lucky Naval Aviator named Captain Denver Key.  His reputation definitely preceded him--I had heard that he was a war hero and had been a POW, but really had no idea of the extent of his experience until one day when he scrapped the lesson plan.  Just four years after his graduation from the Academy, Denver was a newly minted Lieutenant with a young family and his first-born son. When he left for the USS INTREPID's cruise, Denver's son was a mere 10 months old. 

As an A-4 Skyhawk Pilot, Denver's job was to patrol the coast of North Vietnam.  After coming under extreme fire on November 17th, 1967, he was forced to eject his aircraft and was immediately taken by the Vietnamese.  Denver's captors "ignored all international agreements" and subjected him to "extreme mental and physical cruelties in an attempt to obtain military information and propaganda."  Showing immense courage and strength, Denver did not budge or crack under the pressure. The Vietcong eventually put him into solitary confinement for over 6 months where he battled his own demons and worried that he was going insane.  The other POWs in solitary confinement developed a tapping system to communicate with each other and help keep their resolve through the more difficult torture sessions.  The dreaded meat hook was the worst mental and physical abuse there was--prisoners arms and legs were hog-tied and then they were hung by the meat hook until their limbs turned purple and swelled to almost double in size.  Luckily, Denver only had to endure 6 months of the solitary confinement torture while others spent years.  Thoughts of home and his family kept him alive and gave him something that he could believe in and hold on to for just another day.  Eventually, he was released from solitary confinement and was a major contributor to the end of such brutality for the POWs in the Hanoi Hilton.  As new POWs would arrive, they began to share the stories of how people back home were wearing POW MIA bracelets which gave them all hope and the resolve to know that they were not forgotten.  All told, Denver spent 1,945 days in captivity when he was finally released during Operation Homecoming on March 14th, 1973.  When he returned home, he was greeted on the plane by his wife and 7-year-old son.  Words etched on the prison wall by a fellow captive in Vietnam are a chilling reminder to us all:  “Freedom has a taste to it to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.” 

Newly freed prisoners of war celebrate as their C-141A aircraft lifts off from Hanoi, North Vietnam, on Feb. 12, 1973, during Operation Homecoming. The mission included 54 C-141 flights between Feb. 12 and April 4, 1973, returning 591 POWs to American soil. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Captain Key's story brings new meaning to Memorial Day for me.  I'm grateful that he was able to survive and eventually that our paths would cross.  Although I met him in the twilight of his Navy Career while mine was in its infant stages, he made a big impression on me and helped me to conquer a subject that had been difficult to me.  Captain Key taught me many lessons that extend far beyond the subject of Physics.  Captain Key is a living, breathing example of the pride that I take in being an American and how grateful I am for people like him who courageously stood with resolve to keep our country safe at all costs--even despite being tortured for months.  His story is just one thread of thousands that have shaped the fabric of this country.

US Naval Academy - Memorial Hall dedicated to all alumni who have passed in the line of duty.  DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP

Last fall, I was fortunate to be able to head back to Annapolis to speak to a women's group as well as the women's swim team and to also spend a weekend working with aspiring e-commerce entrepreneurs.  We took a tour of the Naval Academy and finished in Memorial Hall.  The very same Hall that I took ballroom dancing lessons in as a youngster and visited with reverence on occasion.  It's in that hall that every graduate who has been killed in the line of duty is commemorated.  There are thousands of names etched into the granite plaques of every class to ever graduate from the Academy.  As I walked through Memorial Hall this last time, I was flooded with emotion as I thought of all the words left unspoken and all of the people lost fighting for what they believed in.  People who had walked these very halls as I had filled with excitement for the future that lie ahead.  I made my way to the class of 94 plaque and looked at the growing list of names engraved under our crest.  My eyes welled up as my finger traced the engraved letters of each name remembering them fondly.  I was surrounded by a feeling of solemn gratitude for my shipmates and classmates who had left us far too soon.

Enjoy your long weekend.  Get outside and have some adventure.  Eat good food and be with those you love.  Take advantage of some of the great deals going on. 

Most importantly, never forget the sacrifice that our lifestyle, culture and great country was built upon.

Always Remember.  

Happy Memorial Day to you and yours.
Joanna Walters
Top Rock @ Wish Rock Relaxation





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