This morning at 11, the public is invited to attend Lake Forest American Legion Post 264’s Memorial Day service at Market Square.
After the opening ceremony, there will be a salute by the rifle squad and color guard and a prayer for fallen veterans.
“The people we’re celebrating, they made this country great,” said Al Champ, 74, a retired Army colonel who served for 34 years. “I’ve traveled all over the world. You can’t find a better place than the U.S.A.”
On Friday and Saturday, Champ joined other members of the American Legion and the local Boy Scouts in placing more than 4,000 American flags at area cemeteries. Champ has participated in this Memorial Day tradition for the last 22 years, as long as he’s been a member of the American Legion.
As he watches the ceremony each year, Champ takes time to reflect.
“I had a lot of classmates that died at Vietnam,” he said. “I try to think about them and all the young men and women who gave their lives so we can live freely.”
“I also think about the firemen and policemen who have served our country," he added. "It’s a great time to reflect on that and honor their service.”
Along with taking part in service activities with the American Legion, Champ has been an assistant scoutmaster for the Boy Scouts for 25 years. He is also a Master Gardener with the University of Illinois, and sorts books with the Friends of Lake Forest Library.
Champ, his wife, Carol, and their two children have lived in Lake Forest since 1981. Al and Carol first met when he was at school at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She was working as a civilian engineer.
“In 1955, I was an exchange student to Berlin, Germany. It was an open city then, with no barriers. I got to go over and see the difference between East Berlin and West Berlin. I saw that it was our military that made the West Germans free. I came back inspired, thinking ‘This is worth it,’ ” Champ said of his decision to join the Army.
Champ’s first duty was in Germany, where he was part of a field artillery unit at the very northernmost part. He went on to earn a master’s degree at Rutgers University.
Next he spent a year in Vietnam. “That was a very stressful year” for his wife, Champ said. She was pregnant with their first child.
“We talked about once a month on the radio. Now with Skype, the kids can talk to their wives all the time," he said. "One day I got a radio message — the ham operator told me my wife just had a son. There I was in the middle of a combat zone. It was nice to get that information.”
Champ laughed while telling the story of holding his son for the first time. “He screamed and yelled and didn’t want me to hold him! I was a stranger to him,” he said.
After Vietnam, he had short assignments in Oklahoma and California, during which he was assigned to combat development command and worked on the field artillery automatic data processing system.
He returned to Germany for three years, then Turkey, and was able to travel.
It seems difficult to balance family life with an on-the-move military career, but Champ said his family loved the opportunity to travel, and came with him nearly everywhere.
“We went to every Turkish island. They loved Germany and learned to speak another language.” The military was accommodating, he said.
After travelling the Middle East, Champ and his family came back to the states, and he worked at Fort Sheridan in the military enlistment processing command. He later was assigned to the reserve in Milwaukee and retired in 1990.
Champ said the most pressing issue for veterans young and old is health care. “We need to make sure these guys who come back get all the assistance they need," he said. "There are kids coming back after being exposed to IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and a lot of them have mental problems. These problems need to be addressed.
“It’s too bad we don’t have a draft still. If we did, more people of means would serve. We have very few congressmen or senators who’ve served,” Champ pointed out. “If you’ve served, you have more of an understanding and an appreciation of what that means.”
Of his military career, Champ said: “I spent a lot of time really enjoying it, and a lot of times it was really scary. I’m sure kids in Afghanistan have a lot of the same feelings.”