For many American families, Memorial Day traditions include barbecues, parades or a day out to mark the unofficial start of summer.
For retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Randall “Adam” Bethke, a Memorial Day tradition, learned from his father, is to set out a finger of whiskey and a cigar for someone who cannot be there to enjoy it.
Bethke shared the significance of that practice with the Naval Support Activity Philadelphia workforce during the Memorial Day observance May 24.
“When I was a small boy, my father took me and my brother to D.C. every Memorial Day. He’d go up to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall and find a name and he’d take a moment,” Bethke said. “And then he would sit and then he would tell us about that person.”
“When I was little, I didn’t quite understand. It didn’t quite register with me exactly who these people were,” Bethke said. “My dad knew everything about them because they were his family. They weren’t my uncles, but they were his brothers. They were the people that didn’t come back from the three tours he served in Vietnam.”
His father served in the Marine Corps as a gunnery sergeant and, later, a chief warrant officer. He would laugh and joke with his two sons on the drive to the capital, Bethke said.
“But on these trips to D.C., I would always see him do something I never saw him do any time else,” Bethke said. “I would see him cry.”
At the end of the night, when they got back home from Washington, Bethke would find his father sitting alone on the back porch with a lit cigar and a finger of whiskey. On the table next to him would be another glass with a finger of whiskey and a lit cigar, as if he were waiting for someone to show up.
“I always thought someone was coming by and went off to bed and I never thought much about it,” Bethke said.
Years later, Bethke would follow in his father’s footsteps and enlist in the military. Bethke joined the Army and rose to the rank of sergeant first class before being selected to attend Warrant Officer Candidate School.
His father passed away while he was a student at the school in 2003. Bethke buried his father with full military honors and returned to the school to finish the course.
The night Bethke returned from the funeral, he found one of his instructors, a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant. The instructor walked him outside and handed him a cigar and a finger of whiskey and set another finger of whiskey and another cigar on a table next to him. As the instructor turned to leave, he told Bethke that it was a Marine tradition.
“When I look back now, on all those years we went to D.C., and every night my father held that tradition, his celebration of their lives was that moment he spent on our back porch, in silence with that finger of whiskey and that cigar,” Bethke said.
It was those memories of solace that Bethke said had gotten him through the days when he would remember his own friends that he had lost in the years since the start of the Global War on Terror.
Bethke said that he’d met some of his best friends while serving in the military. But then the deployments started and some of them didn’t come back.
“We made a promise to one another, that if anything happened to us, our kids would know that no matter where they are in the world, they would be taken care of,” Bethke said.
His group of friends had agreed that, if one of them should die, the others would leave small trinkets at their grave before their families came to visit. It would let their families, and especially their children, know that their father’s comrades were there for them.
In 2006, the first one of his group of friends died. In 2008, two more were killed.
In 2015, Bethke attended the high school graduation of the daughter of one of his fallen comrades. When Bethke got in the car to drive with her to the ceremony, he found a collection of little figurines and other trinkets on the dashboard that Bethke and his other friends had left behind at her father’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery over the years. Bethke recognized some of the items that he had left for her.
“And she saw the look on my face. And she said they’re in the car so I know that you guys are always there,” Bethke said.
Bethke said that Memorial Day is about celebrating the lives and the memories of those friends, family members and comrades in arms that were lost.
Navy Lt. Alex Xia, a contracting officer with the Construction & Equipment supply chain, said that it was important to hear and recognize what Memorial Day represents.
“It was good to hear Bethke’s story and of what his father did for the country and his own dedication to his fallen brothers,” Xia said. “It really shone a light for those of us that are currently serving.”
The Philadelphia Compound Veterans Committee organized the event.