The Rev. Col. William Sean Lee has been praying with the families of fallen soldiers at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens’ Memorial Day ceremony for nearly two decades, and has been a chaplain with the Maryland National Guard for more than three.
Still, the annual Memorial Day ceremony and the grieving families he meets touch him every year.
“For me, it’s a very sacred, humbling experience,” said Lee, who serves at Joint Force Headquarters Chaplain.
Lee, also a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Towson along with his wife Sarah Lee, will serve as the keynote speaker at the Memorial Day ceremony. The ceremony, he said, will be his last official event before he retires from the National Guard.
“It’s the event that I look forward to most each year, because it reminds me of why we do what we do in service of the military,” Lee said.
The ceremony will be held at 10 a.m. May 28 in the Circle of Immortals, a section of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens reserved for Maryland soldiers killed in action. It will be the 51st annual ceremony.
Six Maryland soldiers who died in 2017 will be honored: Staff Sgt. Mark De Alencar, of Edgewood; Sgt. Eric Houck, of Baltimore; Petty Officer First Class Xavier Martin, of Halethorpe; Petty Officer First Class Kevin Bushell, of Gaithersburg; Petty Officer Second Class Timothy Eckels Jr., of Manchester; and Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Johnson, of New Bern, N.C., who was once assigned to Aberdeen Proving Grounds.
The observance will include music, speeches, wreath laying and a 21-gun salute, said Nita Walden, a spokeswoman for Dulaney Valley.
Jack Mitchell, president of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, said this year’s ceremony will feature Maryland’s 9/11 Rolling Memorial, a bell that “looks like the Liberty Bell” created to honor the 69 Marylanders who died on Sept. 11, 2001.
Congressman C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger will speak, and the Maryland Army National Guard Band will play, Walden said.
The ceremony draws hundreds of people every year, and can even draw up to 1,000, according to Mitchell.
In his keynote address, Lee plans to tell a story from his career, of working as a chaplain at the Pentagon after 9/11, giving comfort to soldiers and praying over remains from the site. One day, he said, his team found a child’s foot; he later learned that her name was Zoe, she loved to dance and had “perfect ballerina feet.”
“Chaplains are as human as anyone else,” he said. In his position, he has worked with each family of the 12 members of the Maryland National Guard that have died since 2002. The work can be difficult and poignant, he said.
“We’re all very common in our grief,” Lee said he learns from the families. “The path may vary, but the sense of loss is common to all of us as human beings.”
Memorial Day is about honoring that sacrifice, he said.
Mitchell said that many community members attend the ceremony before their Memorial Day cookouts as a way to remember why the day is a holiday in the first place.
“It’s really just about honoring the men and women who sacrificed their lives, and the veterans who risked their lives for the rest of us,” Mitchell said. “It’s really quite a moving and fitting ceremony.”
After the ceremony, Lee said he will use his retirement to spend more time at Calvary Baptist Church in Towson, being a “part of the fabric of local life.”
In the meantime, on Memorial Day, Lee said he encourages those with faith traditions to take a moment to pray for those in the military and their families.
“And if someone in their community serves in the military, or their family does, it might be nice to thank them,” he added.