Harnett family reflects on the true meaning of Memorial Day

May. 24, 2014 @ 04:06 PM

Lorie and Eric Southerland held a big cookout at their home Thursday, with many children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews at their Harnett County home just south of Sanford.

However, none of them were actually related.

The guests were all former squadmates of Lorie’s son Spc. Michael Rodriguez, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. This Memorial Day, less than a week before what would’ve been Rodriguez’s 28th birthday, some soldiers brought their own small children to the party — several of whom are named Michael, in honor of their fallen comrade.

Southerland is president of the local Dogwood chapter of the Gold Star Mothers, a group for moms who lost children in the military. There are 10 of them in her chapter serving Harnett, Lee and Moore counties, she said, most of them having lost children in Iraq or Afghanistan.

And she wants people to stop this weekend, even if just for a little while, and think about what the Memorial Day holiday really stands for. It’s not just the start of summer. It’s a remembrance of all those who have died while serving their country.

“So take a moment and tell your children what it is, and why we do it,” Southerland said. “To be completely honest, we know that in two generations, Michael won’t be remembered. ... We understand. Individuals aren’t remembered. But take a moment and think about all the names that aren’t remembered.”

Yet for the time being, his name will live on, through the children of his fellow soldiers — Army calvary scouts based out of Fort Bragg – who were manning a checkpoint in the violent Diyala River Valley when a truck bomb exploded, killing Michael and eight others.

He will also live on at the North Carolina Veterans Memorial in Broadway, where his name is engraved. He will live on in a quilt that features him and other fallen soldiers from around the country and tells their stories in a coffee table book, or through the 82nd Airborne Division sticker that still adorns the back window of a truck in their driveway. And for now, Southerland said, it also lives on whenever she goes to meet with fellow Gold Star Mothers.

“A lot of people don’t want to mention Michael’s name because they’re scared I’ll cry,” Southerland said. “But that’s OK. And that’s why the Gold Star Mothers exist, to talk and cry. That’s how our children stay alive, through the stories that you tell.”

But it’s not all just stories and crying. They put together trips and fundraisers, meetings and ceremonies.

“It’s not a pity party,” said Eric Southerland, himself an Air Force veteran who attends many of the Gold Star Mothers events in honor of his stepson and others who have died.

They’ve previously sent supplies to Iraq for girls’ schools, and many volunteer in hospitals. Lorie Southerland began volunteering at a home at the Fort Bragg hospital for visiting family members, where her own family stayed before her son’s funeral. She’s now the manager.

And to celebrate Memorial Day, they plan on attending the public ceremony at the Broadway Veterans Memorial — which will begin at 10:30 a.m. Monday and will feature a wreath ceremony and speeches — as well as a more private celebration, a trip to Aberdeen to visit a woman in a nursing home who lost a son in Vietnam.

They’ve also got bigger plans. In 2011, the Southerlands were invited by the Iraqi government to visit the country. They toured the Kurdish areas where Saddam Hussein’s government carried out genocidal attacks in the late ‘80s, killing as many as 182,000 men, women and children.

The trip solidified that her son’s death wasn’t for nothing, Southerland said — she already knew he loved being part of the military, but it was good to see the progress of an area that was once targeted by a dictator their son helped topple.

And now the local Gold Star Mothers are organizing even more aid for the area, planning a trip in October.

“We’re taking a dentist, an oncologist and another doctor with us,” Southerland said.

So on this Memorial Day weekend, she said, take a moment to think about those who gave their lives so that doctors can visit a war-torn country, or so that people in America can still vote or enjoy any number of other freedoms that are often taken for granted.

“It doesn’t have to be a completely somber holiday,” Eric Southerland said. “But take some time to reflect on ...”

“... On why you get to go to the beach,” Lorie Southerland said.