On Memorial Day weekend six years ago, in 2014, I had the sad but stirring honor of attending the funeral of a good friend’s father. He was a man I had met a few times, had a beer with at cookouts, etc. — I didn’t know him well, but I knew him to be a man of good cheer and laughter, and he had obviously raised fine children, one of whom was my good friend Dave.What I didn’t fully realize was that Dave’s dad was an American hero.
Michael Lee Yohe served in the Vietnam War for two of its bloodiest years, entering the Army in 1967 and returning home in 1969. When he returned, he worked at Lockheed Martin on various projects including the Space Shuttle. He was married for 47 years to his wife Billie, had two daughters and a son, and at the time of his death had two beautiful grandchildren that he doted on, one of whom he faithfully took to school every morning. His son Dave told me that his Dad was his hero, that he never complained about anything, that he always thought of his family first and foremost. His friends nicknamed him “Dude.” In every picture shown of him at his funeral, he was smiling, laughing, playing with his kids, his grandkids.
At the memorial service, a military detail was present to perform the folding and presentation of the flag. In most cases, the flag is draped over the casket before the ceremony, and then folded by two soldiers and presented to the family. There was no casket present at Mike’s funeral. In such a case, the flag is brought to the service folded in the traditional triangular fashion, unfolded so that the flag is fully seen, and then refolded carefully into the triangle before being presented. I had never seen it done that way, and it moved me in an unexpected way.
As the flag was unfolded solemnly by the two soldiers to full glory, it became, to me, perfectly symbolic of our brief time here on this planet: our lives start small, unfold until we are fully realized, and refold until we go back from whence we came, if we are not struck down before our full span. Michael Lee Yohe, who served his country well, was more fortunate than many of his fellow soldiers in Vietnam, and in all of our country’s wars, who were struck down before they had the years of beautiful moments that Mike had, with his wife, his friends, his son and daughters, and his beautiful grandchildren.
Mike was a lucky man.
But it hit me during that refolding of the flag that this day we call Memorial Day is not just about those heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice — although it is certainly about them — but also about those who offered up their lives in sacrifice to their country, as Mike did, and LIVED. Mike Yohe, like every man and woman who serves this country in the military, was willing to die for all of us in service to his country. And the fact that he was fortunate enough to live all of his 65 years with such love, joy, and grace makes him no less of a hero than those who have fallen.
So this Memorial Day, I will remember and pray for those who have fallen, but I will also remember those still among us who served, who were willing to fall and lived. And I will make sure to tell them them that they are my heroes too.
Godspeed, Mike Yohe. Your son, bursting with pride, said to me, “He did it right.” You did it right, Mike.