To the U.S. Air Force, the 6-foot-4-inch, 22-year-old man who was so gifted at working with engines was Airman 1st Class Nathaniel H. McDavitt.
To his mother, Jeannette Middleton-Sudano of Glen Burnie, he was a gentle giant, a young man so tender-hearted that he once literally gave the shoes off his feet to a homeless man. To his younger brothers, he was “Nay-Nay.”
His friends from Severna Park High school called him Nate the Great.
On Monday, Middleton-Sudano addressed the more than 1,000 people who attended the 2018 Memorial Day Service at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium. Every time she called her son by one of his different nicknames, every time she told a story about how much he could eat or how dirty his hands would get working on his beloved engines, every time she called forth her son’s spirit with her words, the muscles in her face relaxed slightly. The attendees, who were sitting beneath white tents on the grounds of the cemetery as a light, chilly rain fell, shifted in their chairs and leaned in toward one another, creating a protective circle around her.
The young engineer died on April 15, 2016, days after extreme winds caused the hangar in Jordan in which he was working to collapse on top of him.
“The last two years have been extremely difficult for my family,” Middleton-Sudano said. “We have been trying to pick up the pieces of our shattered hearts. But in Nathan’s short life, he did more than most. His character and drive continue to inspire us. We are so proud of our son.”
2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the first major observance — then called Decoration Day — honoring men and women who died while defending the U.S. Though the May 30 tradition was increasingly widely observed, it took more than 100 years before Congress established Memorial Day as a national holiday in 1971.
Anniversaries often are solemn occasions, and perhaps that explains partly why the 2018 service was unusually personal and emotional. Special tribute was paid to the six servicemen with Maryland ties who died in 2017, and attendees learned not just their names but a personal fact about them all:
Staff Sgt. Mark R. De Alencar, 37, of Edgewood died April 8, 2017, in Afghanistan. As a teenager, De Alencar rushed to the aid of a friend who had been stabbed three times and helped save his life.
Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25, of Baltimore, who died June 10, 2017, in Afghanistan, had married his Perry Hall High School sweetheart.
Petty Officer 1st Class Xavier A. Martin, 24, of Halethorpe died June 17, 2017, aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald. He and his father, Darrold Martin, wore matching tattoos on their arms saying, “We will figure it out.”
Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin S. Bushell, 26, of Gaithersburg died Aug. 21, 2017, aboard the destroyer USS John S. McCain. While he was growing up, Bushell would bring home injured baby animals and nurse them back to health.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Timothy T. Eckels, Jr. 23, of Manchester died Aug. 21, 2017, also aboard the USS John S. McCain. He was a talented cook with movie-star good looks who was moved and surprised by the beauty of the ocean.
Sgt. 1st Class Jeremiah W. Johnson, 39, of New Bern, N.C., died Oct. 4, 2017, in Niger after having previously been assigned to the Aberdeen Proving Ground. He loved motorcycles and making custom knives and had run a successful business before joining the Army in 2007.
Col. William Sean Lee, who is retiring Thursday as chaplain of the Joint Force Headquarters of the Maryland National Guard, delivered the keynote address. The most important tribute we can pay to those who have served this nation, he told the crowd, is to do what they were doing now — reminisce. Just as dismembering an object means to take it apart, Lee said, “to re-member means to bring together.”
So, during his final public appearance in his current role, Lee recalled the day he donned a biohazard suit and combed through the rubble of American Airlines flight 77 after the plane crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Lee and his team found tactile reminders of the victims’ lives: a driver’s license for a Leslie A. Whittington, a pair of children’s pajamas, a Barbie doll, and most disturbingly, a child’s foot.
He was driven, Lee said, to find out more about the people these items had once belonged to. It was the best way he could think of to honor them. His research eventually led them to determine that the foot had belonged to Whittington’s daughter, Zoe Falkenberg, an 8-year-old girl who loved to dance and whose obituary described her as having “perfect ballerina feet.”
“When I left that place,” Lee said, “I resolved to tell that story to people who I thought would receive it graciously so that Zoe’s memory and her story would continue to live.”
Lee wants all the names recited, all the tales told. If they’re repeated enough times, he said, some essence may remain indefinitely.
“Take these stories with you and carry them gently,” he said. “If in generations to come no one remembers your names, they may well remember your sacrifices.”