My Taps magazine sits on a pile of periodicals, distinguished from the others by its cover photo of weathered tombstones beneath magnolia blossoms.
This thin supplement comes with the Assembly, an alumni publication for the U.S. Military Academy. On the last page, a list of graduates appears under the heading “Last Roll Call.” These are the deaths reported since the last issue.
Gen. William Westmoreland came home to West Point in 2005 to be interred with such notable soldiers as Maj. Gen. George Custer and Lt. Gen. Winfield Scott. Lesser known to the public, but no less dedicated and honorable, are a multitude of heroes whose eulogies have filled the pages of Taps.
Col. Harry Pritchett Jr. of the Class of 1943 is eulogized as “a soldier’s soldier.” He served in the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion that landed in Southern France in 1944, then fought in the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge, surviving against the odds amid extremely heavy losses. He passed away peacefully at home in Savannah at 81.
The eulogy next to Pritchett’s recognizes James B. Adamson, who served with distinction in the Far East and rose to the rank of major general. His Class of 1945 became the Class of 1944 when West Point graduated officers a year early after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Like Adamson, many World War II veterans are reaching the twilight of their lives. They are part of the “long gray line,” which refers to all the graduates of our nation’s military academy and the gray uniforms worn there.
The connection spans from the first class, enrolled in 1802, to this year’s graduates, from those interred at Arlington National Cemetery to the living, breathing force that fights for us today.
In recent issues, the “Last Roll Call” included graduates from classes in the 1990s and early 2000s.
I read about Brian Wheeler from the Class of 1990, who was assigned to the 43rd Engineer Combat Battalion deployed to Somalia. During Operation Restore Hope, he came into contact with many Somalian warlord gunmen.
A soldier of the 43rd was quoted as saying, “The luckiest day in my life was being assigned an officer who’d been a member of the West Point rifle team. Outside of Baidoa, we were ambushed and pinned down. I watched ‘LT’ [Lieutenant Wheeler] calmly fit a hasty sling around his arm, lean over the Humvee hood, and, in the face of incoming fire, pick off two Somalian gunmen at 285 yards … with just two shots … which stopped the ambush!”
Wheeler served three combat tours. He left the Army, earned a law degree with honors, then was admitted to Georgetown Law School for further graduate studies. Passing up the offer of a federal law clerkship, he joined the Army Reserves after 9/11 and was called back to active duty. Tragically, he died last year in a non-service-related car accident.
Other graduates who lost their lives in the war against terrorism are listed in memoriam online by rank and class date. The youngest on the list, Emily Perez from the Class of 2005, was killed in September by an improvised explosive device detonated during combat operations.
Among her numerous eulogies, Capt. Sharon Denson called Perez “an extraordinary young lady and a great officer. She had achieved more at 23 years old than most will in a lifetime.”
Taps magazine is a reminder to me of how good my life is and how lucky I am to be an American. It humbles and inspires me with incredible examples of selflessness, heroic deeds and truly noble lives.
This glimpse into the lives of great, often unsung heroes gives me perspective. They took an oath to serve their country, to pay the ultimate price if necessary. When they went to war, they left their children, their spouses, their families for months, sometimes years, sometimes forever.
This Veterans Day, I pay homage to all service members and veterans. For those on the “Last Roll Call,” these words from the West Point Alma Mater are a fitting tribute:
“And when our work is done, our course on earth is run, may it be said, ‘Well done; be thou at peace.’ “
Tribune correspondent MyLinh Shattan graduated from West Point in 1991 and served as an Army officer in Western Europe.