Memorial Service Lends Gravity to 500 Festival

Gov. Mike Pence, Mayor Greg Ballard, and a host of veterans and Gold Star wives and family members congregated on Monument Circle today to remember the dead and look to the future.

“Words are feeble on Memorial Day …”

—Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States, on May 31, 1982

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence included that quotation among his remarks at the 500 Festival Memorial Service held today at noon on the steps of Monument Circle’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument. Pence followed Indianapolis mayor Greg Ballard, himself a former Marine, and spoke solemnly and frankly about his standing before those assembled: “Unlike the mayor who just spoke, I am not a soldier. I am a soldier’s son. … I feel like the smallest man here.”

About 2,000 onlookers attended as Pence, Ballard, and General Daniel B. Allyn—who earlier this month became the 20th commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command—addressed the fallen, surveyed the present, and glanced at the future. “I wonder how many times that scenario has played out—the last hug, the last kiss before heading off to war,” said Mayor Ballard. “Sometimes, though, it really is the last war, the last kiss. And that is why we are here today.”

“It is our duty to carry on despite the pain that never quite leaves.” Ballard intoned those words on this day, but it was Autumn Letendre who personified them. Self-described as a singer, songwriter, mother, “and proud widow of Capt. Brian Letendre,” who died in combat in Iraq in 2006, Letendre brought profound gravity to these proceedings, which included performances by the Capital City Chorus, Major Lisa Kopczynski, and the 38th Infantry Division Band, not even so much with her words (which were powerful) but by her very presence—and by the great honesty and weight of her quivering voice as she recounted two Marines arriving at her door in 2006 to relay word that her husband had given his life on duty. She described being married a decade ago not far from the monument’s steps, and how she and Brian “spent less than 90 days together in three years.” She also sang a few lines in the midst of her speech from a song she wrote and recorded, “Raise Your Flag.”

“The bitter lesson of history is that freedom comes with no guarantee,” said Gen. Allyn among remarks considering the nation’s history and its respect for those who have served. Bells tolled during this service as the names of 12 Hoosiers were read, names of those killed in the line of duty in the past year. In keeping with tradition, the presentation of the caisson included eight casket bearers and a riderless horse, called the Caparisoned Horse, marked by a set of cavalry boots and spurs placed backward in its stirrups with a U.S. Army saber affixed to its saddle. The symbolism was obvious; the 2,000 observers were completely quiet.

The first Memorial Day service was held on May 30, 1868, in Arlington National Cemetery, after the day was forever consecrated as such earlier that month. Also of note is that the USS Indianapolis disaster was mentioned in today’s service; 317 men survived that tragedy.

“This is honestly the most memorable event that I will participate in, remembering Hoosiers who died for us,” said 500 Festival queen Allison Jacob. “To escort the little boy [Gold Star child Austin Dan] to lay the wreath in place will be one of the most memorable parts of my reign.”

Jacob says she will continue to reach out to children in Indiana schools and to hospitals during her year in service as the 500 Festival queen. She—and everyone else who witnessed today’s service—is unlikely to forget the dedication and the ultimate sacrifices that make such efforts possible.

Photos by Michael Schrader