Medal of Honor recipient Edward C. Byers Jr., lays a poppy at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during The American Legion's celebration of National Poppy Day in Washington, D.C., on Friday, May 26. Photo by Lucas Carter/The American Legion.

Legion Riders, Gold Star families pay tribute to the fallen

When Gina Townsend’s father was killed during the Vietnam War, she was too young to understand or participate in his Medal of Honor ceremonies.

As an adult, Townsend began to research her father, Clifford Sims, who received his medal for his actions when he launched himself over a booby trap, sacrificing his life but saving his fellow soldiers.

“We kind of put it behind us because Vietnam was an unpopular war,” said Townsend, who was among the Gold Star family members at the National Poppy Day ceremony at American Legion Post 177 in Fairfax, Va. “In my 20s, I started doing some research, met some people who served with him and learned how many things had been done in his honor that we weren’t privy too. Ever since then, we have been going to various events and programs that honor his name and that is what led us here.”

Medal of Honor recipient and Navy SEAL Edward C. Byers Jr. served as the keynote speaker at the event. Byers reflected back to previous missions he was a part of in describing the importance of National Poppy Day.

“Out of tragedy something amazing and beautiful can flourish,” said Byers, who led hundreds of American Legion Riders to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial for a candlelight vigil and laying poppies at the wall. “Today is one of those days. To stand here and celebrate National Poppy Day and reflect on why the poppy began to flourish across Europe at the end of World War I. Out of death and destruction grew a beautiful flower. This is why we should not mourn our fallen, but celebrate their lives. We come here today to remember and to reflect on those who gave all and the families they left behind. We will honor them by laying poppies at the wall.”

Among those joining Byers at the wall was Bob Sussan, chairman of The American Legion Riders National Advisory Committee.

“On Memorial Day and every day, it is important that we pause and reflect on those who have given their lives in service to our country,” said Sussan, a member of Post 177. “Being here and placing my poppy has personal significance. I served in Vietnam. I am sure others are just as moved as I am to honor someone who gave their life so that we can all be free.”

For six years, the post has hosted Riders, Gold Star families and other patriots from across the nation on Rolling Thunder weekend. On Friday night, they all solemnly commemorated the first Poppy Day candlelight vigil at the wall.

More than 100 Riders joined Gold Star family members in laying poppies at the wall to pay homage to the fallen servicemembers. Bystanders snapped a few cell phone pictures while others offered symbolic “thank yous” to the veterans for their service and the Gold Star family members for their sacrifice.

Each year in communities across the country, members of The American Legion, American Legion Auxiliary and Sons of the American Legion distribute poppies and collect donations. All donations received as part of National Poppy Day support veterans, active-duty military personnel, and their families with medical and financial needs.

Townsend is married to Col. Daniel Lee Townsend, who will be laying a wreath during Memorial Day weekend. “Our family will be honoring our current servicemembers while also remembering those veterans who came before us,” she said.

Poppy Day is a way for Townsend to educate others about her father and husband.

“If I had to help people understand what Memorial Day and Veterans Day are all about is that we remember those people who gave some and who gave all for the freedoms we have today,” said the sixth-grade science teacher. “I think we just need to be aware. My husband is active duty and so we are aware of what is going on internationally. But today’s generation is not aware of some of the history of some of the people who fought and died for our country. I would just encourage people to study our history and learn why we honor these people because we can do what we do now because of their sacrifices.”

The poppy and its history tracing back to World War I in France helps spread that message during this sacred weekend.

“This poppy means that I can celebrate openly and I can share with others,” Townsend said. “We have beautiful weather this weekend. All my friends are here celebrating. It’s just an honor to be a part of it because for so many years I was not a part of it. I think I understand a lot more and I like that my daughter, my husband, are part of something that honors so many.”