There is a schoolhouse among the green trees and rolling hills of Maryland where artists gather by the hundreds. They strive to become wordsmiths, master the photography medium, and aspire to be television personalities. Over $5 lattes, they enjoy each other’s camaraderie while going over assignments and laughing at each other the way only family can.
Down one hallway, the sound of laughter fades and eventually dies at the doorway of a grand room. There is no laughter permitted inside as the residents demand respect, honor and compassion. The room by its very nature is like none other in the building. Adorned with flags, photos line one wall and reach to the two-story ceiling while on another wall, sunlight reflects on the names of those who will never again feel its warmth.
May 11, 2017 - Name plaques from service members of all services are displayed in the Defense Information School's Hall of Heroes at Fort George G. Meade, MD. The Hall of Heroes is a place where public affairs military members from all branches are forever immortalized on individual plaques that bear their names, marking their final resting place in American military history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joshua Strang)
Even though in life they had mortal titles such as husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, the service members who reside here are no longer allowed to hold their mother’s hands. They are unable to recognize their sibling’s faces and they will never again hold their children to their chests.
They are now immortal.
The Hall of Heroes in the Defense Information School at Fort George G. Meade is a place where public affairs military members from all branches are forever immortalized on individual plaques that bear their names, marking their final resting place in American military history.
“It’s a very solemn, dignified place in the school,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Sharon Opeka, DINFOS command sergeant major. “It is a very special area.”
Created in 2006, there are currently 128 names that adorn the wall reaching back over many conflicts.
“The earliest plaque dates from the Korean War,” said Opeka. “That is not because that was when the first communication specialist was killed, that is when they started listing casualties by occupation. So, that is all we can trace back.”
Upon closer inspection, the names seem to be randomly arranged. That feature was not done by mistake and speaks to a deeper connection that all of the members share.
“There is no order by date, rank or service,” said Opeka. “The individuals are honored in death as they served, as one team, with one mission: To tell the story of the men and women of the U.S. military operating overseas.”
Opeka has served in her role as the top enlisted member of the schoolhouse for a little over two years and will soon leave for a new duty assignment. She said the Hall of Heroes is the responsibility of her position and during her tenure, she had the somber honor to immortalize members of the Marine Corps.
“In my time here, we added two names in 2015,” Opeka reflected. “Those names were Lance Cpl. Jacob Hug and Cpl. Sara Medina.”
Hug, 22, a native of Phoenix, and Medina, 23, a native of Aurora, Illinois, were killed in a helicopter crash May 12, 2015, while documenting humanitarian relief missions in Nepal following the devastating earthquake in April, recalled Opeka.
While Hug and Medina are memorialized for serving in a humanitarian role, that is not the only requirement for a public affairs professional to be added to the wall.
To be placed on the wall, service members must “have been killed in combat or in the line of duty,” said Opeka. “They must have been out there doing their job. So if a service member died from an illness or car accident, they would not meet the requirements.”
While the requirements to be placed in the Hall of Heroes are not unique to the memorial, the fact that it is solely dedicated to the public affairs community makes it special.
“I particularly like [the memorial] because we have a great, creative occupation,” explained Opeka. “It is an important job for our services. Civilians, and even other service members, don’t realize what we do puts our people on the frontline along with the infantrymen. They are out there on the frontlines documenting history.”
That is a fact that Sgt. Rob Farrell knows all too well.
Farrell, now with the Army Reserve’s 86th Training Division, was a classmate with Spc. Hilda Clayton who became a resident of the Hall of Heroes in December 2013. Farrell distinctly recalls the day he was notified his battle buddy had paid the ultimate sacrifice.
May 11, 2017 - U.S. Army Spc. Hilda Clayton and U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Sara Medina's name plaques are displayed in the Defense Information School's Hall of Heroes at Fort George G. Meade, MD. The Hall of Heroes is a place where public affairs military members from all branches are forever immortalized on individual plaques that bear their names, marking their final resting place in American military history. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Joshua Strang)
“I got a call from Mendez,” recalled Farrell. “I specifically remember walking out onto the driveway for some privacy and staring at the center-cut on the concrete. It was an incredibly strange moment and I don’t think it quite sank in until later.
“Not until I was lying in bed did it really slap me across the face. Visiting her at the memorial ceremony was incredibly difficult and I believe I felt weaker than many of the other soldiers there who had seemed to be holding themselves together much better than I.”
Farrell and fellow classmate Connor Mendez graduated DINFOS basic still photography and videography classes with Clayton in 2012.
According to an Army release, Clayton, 22, “died during an Afghan National Army training exercise, when a mortar system failed and created a ‘catastrophic explosion’ that killed four people and wounded 11.”
For Farrell, it is the time spent in the schoolhouse that he best remembers his friend.
“I have many memories with her from class,” remembered Farrell. “Towards the end of our training, I found one of Hilda’s nametapes. At the time she was Hilda Ortiz, so the nametape read her maiden name. I told her that I’d never give it back to her because I collect them. I kept my word, but when I visited her at her memorial service, I gave her one of mine.”
The military is a family unit only a handful of people ever experience. Of the Hall of Heroes, Farrell said the memorial held importance for him while he was in training but knowing an individual on the wall makes him much more proud of his friend and of all of the service members who pass through the halls. It is just one more way to feel connected and valued.
“Esprit de corps is a very important part of our military,” said Farrell. “We fight alongside our brothers and sisters because we feel a sense of community with them, like we belong to a group. Hilda was part of that brotherhood for many. To not memorialize her sacrifice would be a great crime.”
Perhaps the author Sebastian Junger summed it up best in his book, “War.” “The only thing that makes battle psychologically tolerable is the brotherhood among soldiers. You need each other to get by.”
The residents of the Hall of Heroes will live forever as they served, shoulder to shoulder, as one team on one wall.
By U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Joshua Strang
Provided through DVIDS
Comment on this article