As he leads the Pledge of Allegiance at Monday's Memorial Day Ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, retired Air Force Capt. Thomas Sheehan will have a special appreciation for the anticipated 1,000 reverent voices joining his.
In 1966, a Memorial Day ceremony in Pennsylvania was so poorly attended that Sheehan wrote a letter to the editor of his local paper decrying the lack of respect for fallen soldiers. Forty-seven years later, the mere thought of it brings him to tears.
"I didn't cry then," Sheehan said. "I was mad."
On Memorial Day 1966, Sheehan and his wife, Karen, woke their sons early in the morning, anxious to get to the Memorial Day ceremony in their hometown of Indiana, Pa. He wanted the boys to see how America honored its dead.
He needn't have worried.
In a town of around 15,000, just 50 people showed up for the ceremony.
A flag was raised. A high school band played. And then the small crowd was sent to enjoy the rest of their holiday.
"I thought, 'My God, they can't take one hour of the whole year to honor the dead?' " Sheehan, 84, of Monkton, said. He went home and wrote a letter to the editor of the Indiana (Penn.) Gazette entitled, "A Letter to my Five Sons" — a letter that gained acclaim across the country and ultimately led to his inclusion in Dulaney Valley's ceremony.
In it, he apologized to his boys — Kirk, Danny, Tige, Toby, and Tommy — for the hectic and ultimately fruitless morning.
"Fellows, these people aren't bad Americans," he wrote of those who didn't attend the ceremony. "They've just lost something. … They can't work up any compassion for the tears of a mother or father who has lost a child who has died so that we can live in freedom."
He went on to ask his sons to pray for the troops in Vietnam, and urged them as future citizens to strengthen the spirit of America.
Sheehan was angry for the lack of respect for his friends and comrades in Korea. A Korean War veteran, Sheehan had lost two classmates from Bennett High School, in Buffalo, N.Y., and who had countless friends wounded in what has been called "the forgotten war." And his thoughts turned, as well, to soldiers then serving in Vietnam.
"There was a dichotomy," he said. "There were people who were for the war, and against the war, and people who were against the war probably just wouldn't honor the dead." When a person dies, he said, "that life is completely shattered. If the person is wounded, that life is also in ruin."
Sheehan thinks that a decade of politically polarizing war in Afghanistan and Iraq has similarly taken the focus off the young men and women who are serving.
"Today, if a kid gets blown up with an (improvised explosive device) and loses his two legs and an arm, what is that to (him) for the rest of their lives? That family is shattered." he said. "People hear about two deaths and six wounded, they sail on — go to the movies and have popcorn. It's just another statistic. Not for the family, not for the person that died, and not for all the survivors and the surviving wounded."
The letter was published in Indiana in June 1966, and Sheehan said it ran in newspapers all over the Northeast. Clippings ultimately made it over to the troops serving in Vietnam, and one, Capt. John Alger, sent Sheehan a note from the front lines.
The letter earned Sheehan acclaim, though he deflected much of it. Pennsylvania Congressman John Saylor entered his letter into the congressional record in 1967, and the Freedom's Foundation at Valley Forge awarded Sheehan the George Washington Honor Medal. He didn't attend the ceremony.
"The letter wasn't about me," he said. "It was about all the people that died."
Sheehan does, however, take pride in the turnout at the Indiana Memorial Day Ceremony in 1967. He said 500 people attended the ceremony, including the town's mayor and council. The mayor even told a reporter that he attended because of Sheehan's letter.
Sheehan's job with Standard Oil eventually brought him to Maryland, and he has been at countless ceremonies at Dulaney Valley in Timonium since. But his patriotism and gratitude for fellow veterans ultimately brought his story to the attention of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens' event planner, Mary Auld.
Auld's stepfather, Ed Miles, is in a home hospice care program with Stella Maris, where Sheehan volunteers with hospice patients.
Sheehan, an Air Force veteran who reenlisted in the Naval Reserves during Vietnam, bonded with Miles, the World War II veteran who was with the 1st Marine Division during the invasion of Guadalcanal and turns 92 on Memorial Day.
Sheehan has brought Miles a Marine Corps hat and crab cakes, and one day, Auld arrived as Sheehan was telling Miles about his letter. Auld, who organizes the Memorial Day ceremony and Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens' Fallen Heroes Day for police and firefighters, said the whole episode was "fate."
"It was meant to be," she said. "He was meant to come into Ed's life and help him into this journey — and maybe, hopefully, bring some people to go to Memorial Day ceremonies."