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Old Promises Keep Tributes Alive
 Courtesy of the Washington Post
November 11, 1998
Muriel Sue Parkhurst made a promise, and she intends to keep it.

    For 24 years, the Alexandria woman has watched out for the dwindling number of Americans  who fought in World War I. She has, over the years, told several  dying men she would keep the  organization that honors them  alive as long as there is a member  left.

  "A promise means so much to me," she said. "I was raised your  word is the most important thing  you possess, and no one will trust   you or respect you if you don't  keep your word."

So every year, on the 11th day of  the 11th month, Parkhurst is at  the 3 p.m. ceremony at General John  "Black Jack" Pershing's grave in  Arlington National Cemetery,  looking after her men. She makes  sure the Veterans of World War I  are bundled against the cold and takes pictures of them for the newsletter.

  There are 3,000 veterans of World War I left. Their organization, which Parkhurst  once worked for, ran out of  money five years ago, and she asked the Military Order of  World Wars to take over the ceremony. She is now the sole  volunteer for the group.

   Each year, she worries that the 100 seats will not be filled. The average age of the members is  99.

   On Veterans Day, there are the  big ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery and the  Vietnam Veterans Memorial. And   then there are the small ones.

      Like Parkhurst, Charles R.   Thomas has kept a small ceremony alive for 24 years. He  has scheduled the chaplain and   the speaker. He has ordered the wreath and the color guard. And  he has worried about filling the  seats only 50 in his case at the  First Division Memorial near the White House.

    Thomas, the president of the D.C.  Chapter of the First Division Society and a retired lieutenant  colonel in the U.S. Army,  continues to make arrangements because there doesn't seem to be anyone else to do it.

       "It's really an emotional feeling of  patriotism," said the 62-year-old Thomas, "of being loyal to my  country."

    The First Division participated in   World Wars I and II, Vietnam  and Desert Storm, and the society has a potential membership of many thousands. But, Thomas said, "it is a small, hard core of  people who will come."

    Thomas, who lives in Burke, Virginia, has  problems putting together a
       program and said he has to make  numerous calls each year to find a  speaker for his event. Everyone  would like to do it, but no one wants to commit, he said. So hegoes through the list of several  hundred retired First Division officials until someone agrees.

   "Some will tear your heart out,  and others don't make any sense,"  he said. "We applaud anyway."

 Thomas said that when he was  growing up in rural Kansas during
   World War II, children at his two-room schoolhouse said the   Pledge of Allegiance every morning and sang military songs.

   "It was kind of patriotism run  amok," he said.

   When the soldiers came home, including five of his uncles, the whole community turned out, and they "were received aswinners. They had stopped the aggression, and there were lots of good feelings."

   However, with the next two wars in Korea and Vietnam,there was little  to celebrate, he said. "There was a great feeling of disillusionment, " said Thomas, who fought in both conflicts.

 But Thomas said he still feels very patriotic andwants to make sure the  First Division is remembered each year.

"It doesn't bother me very much that we get a smallcrowd," he said.  It gives me a great sense of satisfaction ... to do whatI feel is my responsibility. As the Bible says, 'When two or moreare gathered  together ... '"

    Then he recited the First Division motto, his voicegetting husky. "No
mission too difficult, no sacrifice too great, duty first. I really believe that."

In contrast, Parkhurst stumbled into a job that claimed her devotion. Shetook a secretarial job with the veterans organizationin 1974, when her  husband left her with a small child. She was sure that he would return and that the job would be short term, she said.

  "I just needed a job for a couple of weeks until myhusband realized he   couldn't live without me," she said. "Well, I guesshe could." She now runs the organization from her home.

    Parkhurst said the national commander, one of the veterans, always speaks at the ceremony. But Joseph Schwartz ofArizona, who assumed the commander's post in September at the annualconvention, died last  week. So Parkhurst spent the last few days scramblingto find a substitute  speaker from among the 300 or so members who live in the area.

 And come 3 o'clock today, she will be there with her men.