He stood at attention, in full-dress Honor Guard uniform, with a silent salute for us (the bereaved family) as we entered the funeral home for Dad's visitation. It was April 2005. The sight of this U.S. Military soldier reverently paying his respects to a fellow veteran (one he had never even met) immediately brought fresh tears to my eyes. Throughout the visitation service, Mr. Jerabek silently "stood guard" in the foyer; a silent presence, but a powerful one. Near the end, I approached him to thank him and inquire about his presence. He replied, "It's an honor" and shared his story. I phoned him recently to hear it again.
Ken Jerabek's son, Ryan, was a local Marine who on his last leave (in 2004) had attended the funeral of another veteran with his dad. Ryan was a quiet, humble young man who had the utmost respect and reverence for his country and had joined in his family's strong tradition of military service. He asked, "Dad, this man stormed the beaches of Normandy, serving his country, fighting for its freedom. Why is it that that there is no special recognition of his service?" His dad explained that there are few Honor Guards young enough anymore (and trained) to get around to all of the veterans' funerals and properly recognize their service.
"When I come home again, let's get something started," Ryan said with conviction, and his dad proudly agreed.
Sadly, 18-year-old Ryan Jerabek lost his life in Iraq on April 6, 2004, before his dream could become a reality. He was the youngest Wisconsin soldier to sacrifice his life in Iraq and the third youngest in the nation. Ken told me that in Ryan's memory, he travels the area attending the funerals of Wisconsin veterans (an average of four per week.) He wears the Arlington Dress Blues (an elite uniform) and performs the "Silent Tribute" with the utmost respect and total reverence. Because Ryan can no longer pay his respects to veterans who have passed, his dad does it for him, honoring his own son's memory at the same time. In addition, he and his wife help run the PFC Ryan Jerabek Memorial Challenge, which is the largest contributor of its kind to the Injured Marine Corp SemperFi fund, which aides wounded vets all over the United States.
In his senior year at Pulaski High School, Ryan gave a speech in which he implored his fellow classmates with the following, "I'd like to ask you to thank those who fought and are fighting in the battles to keep this country at the pinnacle of freedom." He had hopes of one day returning to PHS as a history teacher. Today, Ryan's photo, along with his uniform and medals are in a place of honor in PHS's main hallway. In a tragic way, his dream has been realized.
Young men and women from all over Wisconsin and Michigan take their oath of military service in the "Military Entrance Processing Station," in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. On the 23rd of this month, in a special ceremony, this hall will be named the PFC Ryan Jerabek Memorial Hall. A plaque on the U.S.S. Green Bay also memorializes Ryan, and a documentary has been made in his memory, as well. Clearly, Ryan's legacy is strong.
Before I could thank Mr. Jerabek again for being at Dad's wake service, he thanked me, "There are many types of heroes today, but those veterans are my heroes, as is my son. I thank you for the allowing me to pay tribute to your dad."
Ryan (and Dad) would be very proud.