ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND — Maj. Gen. Robert Edmonson II spoke briefly about the Living Legacy Forest on Friday night while standing at a podium on that very ground – a beautiful landscape created to remember U.S. military servicemen and servicewomen who made the supreme sacrifice.
“This is your space to sit in nature, find comfort and reflect. What I love most about this Living Legacy Forest is right here in the title – living. We don’t call it a graveyard, and we don’t call it a memorial. It is a place where we invite the memories of your loved ones to live,” explained Edmonson, who assumed command of APG in August.
Edmonson made his comments during a ceremony that was part of the 2021 Gold Star Mothers and Family Day. A term that originated during World War I, “Gold Star” applies to any family that lost a member during his or her military service.
On this particular evening, the Army paid tribute to a specific Gold Star family – Emily Zembas and her parents, Steve and Diane Couchman – by memorializing U.S. Army 1st Lt. Dax Conrad, a Bel Air native who died on Oct. 16, 2020, less than one year ago, after battling medical complications that arose while conducting training to earn the Expert Infantryman Badge. Conrad was 26.
Zembas is Conrad’s widow. The Couchmans were his in-laws.
During the ceremony, a solider removed a stone engraved with Conrad’s name from beneath a black veil on a table – front and center – and later placed it at the end of a row on a memorial wall made up of similar bricks bearing the names of other Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Coastguardsman who gave their lives during their military service.
The ceremony also featured the lighting of candles. A decorative lantern encasing the lead candle was presented to Zembas, triggering one of many emotional moments during the event. Also part of the ceremony, the U.S. Army Drill Team performed a dazzling, synchronized demonstration that lasted more than 10 minutes.
Zembas sobbed at times during the ceremony. Also visibly moved, her mother periodically wiped tears from her own face. Zembas’ father seemed to be holding back his own tears at certain points.
Although Edmonson was addressing the Gold Star community in general when he gave his speech, it seemed that – on this particular evening – he was speaking from his heart to Zembas and her parents.
“Now, I do not pretend to know that pain you all faced in the moments when you lost your loved one, or that you continue to face each day. And unfortunately, I don’t have any new sentiments or words to share that could erase your pain,” said Edmonson, before emphasizing, “Your loved one’s sacrifice mattered, and our nation can never thank you enough for what you have given.”
Edmonson then talked about the importance of that pain.
“As much as I wish I could ease your pain, I believe erasing it would prove to be a disservice. Because it is in that pain that also lives joy. In your grief also resides your fondest memories, your best moments . . . ,” Edmonson told the audience.
He then commented from the podium, “In that pain you have your child’s first steps, your mother bandaging your knee, playing video games with your siblings, your first kiss with your spouse. You have all the moments of a lifetime.”
A 2013 graduate of C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, where he stood out as an “incredible athlete and friend,” Conrad attended went on to attend The Ohio State University — where he studied electrical engineering and completed the ROTC program, serving as the Command Sergeant Major of his battalion, according to his bio, which was read aloud during the ceremony.
Conrad joined the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment on Feb. 20, 2019, while the unit was conducting a four-month-long training mission in the Philippines. He served as the Platoon Leader for First Platoon, A Company and as Executive Officer for C Company.
The bio further indicates that Conrad provided “exceptional leadership” throughout his “countless unit training exercises” and that his fellow soldiers knew him well as an “exemplary infantry officer who demonstrated the highest levels of competence, compassion and selflessness.”
“Described as both funny and smart, Lt. Conrad would help everyone and anyone. A true warrior, Lt. Conrad’s dedication, fearlessness, passion and devotion made him not only an outstanding leader, but an exemplary husband to his wife, Emily,” the bio reads.
Among those in attendance Friday were Cecil County Executive Danielle Hornberger and Dan Schneckenburger, who serves as her Director of Administration.
Also in attendance were some Gold Star mothers, who, dressed all in white, as is the custom for such public functions, stood out in the crowd.
“It is nice that they honor our children and us at the same time,” said Kelly Swanson, an Anne Arundel County resident whose son, U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Eugene Mills III, was killed in Afghanistan on June 22, 2012 at age 25. “We are really grateful for Aberdeen Proving Ground and what they do for the Gold Star families.”
Philip Molter, an APG spokesman, stressed the importance of the Living Legacy Forest, the special days set aside for Gold Star families and the ceremonies, such as the one held on Friday, this one: “It is a reflection of our commitment to the Gold Star mothers and families that they are not forgotten and that they always will be valued members of the Army family.”
At the start of his speech on Friday, Edmonson noted that he had been the APG commander for only 45 days and then commented, “I am impressed and so very proud to have stepped into a role where there is such a great relationship established between the installation and the Gold Star community. Please know, I am committed to keeping it strong.”