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Odegaard: Memorial Day not about vets, but about those who didn’t make it back
Retired major, former local JROTC teacher encourages citizens to be worth their sacrifice
Memorial 2024
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10825 commander Mike Cox, left, listens to the opening pray with fellow veterans and guests during the annual community Memorial Day observance at the Emma Kelly Theater on Monday, May 27. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Retired U.S. Army Maj. Jeff Odegaard, speaking Monday to a near-capacity crowd of about 300 at the Emma Kelly Theater, reminded people that Memorial Day is not for veterans, but for those who died from all manner of causes in military service to their country.

Odegaard, well known here from his dozen years as senior instructor of the JROTC Yellow Jacket Battalion at Southeast Bulloch High School and now in his 20th year calling Bulloch County home, gave the keynote remarks for the annual Memorial Day service organized by American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90.

His speech came after the intoning by Post 90 member veterans of the names of Bulloch County’s war dead from World War I to the present. Odegaard cited some poignant examples of how some of them died and, after quoting the “Earn this,” dying words of Tom Hanks’ character in the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” urged everyone to do something to be worth dying for.

“There’s a lot of veterans out there, and y’all know that this is not about you,” Odegaard said, “and I don’t need to say that for you. I say that for the other folks, who we very much appreciate all your support, but on this day it’s uncomfortable when we get the spotlight, because the spotlight should go on those folks who, President Lincoln and our chaplain noted, ‘gave the last full measure of devotion.’

“Now, we know that it’s not about us because we’ve known some of people who it’s about. …,” he added to the veterans. “Maybe you put them on the Medivac or presented a flag to a widow on behalf of the president of the United States and a grateful nation.”

After quoting that “Freedom isn’t free and … freedom doesn’t have grandchildren …” Odegaard said, “Certainly some generations pay more than others, but they pay nevertheless.”

Memorial 2024
Retired U.S. Army Major Jeff Odegaard compliments American Legion Post 90 for their "Be the One" campaign to help veterans struggling with mental health issues while delivering a keynote address at the annual community Memorial Day observance at the Emma Kelly Theater on Monday, May 27. Odegaard brought to light the stories behind many of the names that are read during the intonement every year. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

He noted that 469 trees have now been planted along Warriors Walk at Fort Stewart in memory of 469 soldiers from Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield who died in the “Global War on Terror,” through Afghanistan and Iraq and beyond.

“Recently we in Georgia learned this cost all over again as we welcomed home the remains of (Sgt.) Kennedy Sanders, of Waycross, (Sgt.) Breonna Moffett of Savannah, and (Staff Sgt.)  Jerome Rivers, of Carrollton, after they died in a drone attack on January 28, 2024, in Jordan,” Odegaard said.

While describing some of the military’s ceremonial traditions carried out when a service member dies, he began to mention, specifically, a few of Bulloch County’s own fallen heroes. One such tradition is the “final roll call,” with the unit formed up and typically the first sergeant calling the roll.

“It will sound something like this,” he said. “‘Smith.’  ‘Here, first sergeant!’ ‘Olson.’ ‘Here, first sergeant!’ ‘Chavers.’ … (Silence.) ‘Sergeant Chavers.’ … … ‘Sgt. Brock Henry Chavers.’ … … … (Continued silence.)

“A few more names are often called before the first sergeant turns and gives the report to either the commander or the sergeant major,” Odegaard said, “The report often sounds something like this: ‘One man out of ranks: Sgt. Brock Henry Chavers, Portal, Georgia, killed in action by an IED, July 6, 2009.’”


Earlier wars

Researching Bulloch County’s fallen heroes, Odegaard found a better job was done preserving the stories of those from World War II than others, and also that the county seems to have produced an unusually large number of pilots, he said.

Navy Ensign Flournoy Glen Hodges, a member of the Statesboro High class of 1934 and the University of Georgia class of 1939, was working in the Agricultural Adjustment Office in Statesboro and had already been designated as the new office chief for Camden County when he enlisted as a sailor and later became an officer and pilot.

Assigned to Torpedo Squadron 6 aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise, he was flying on June 6, 1942, during the Battle of Midway, when the squadron lost contact with their fighter cover on the way to the target. After continuing to press the attack, only four of the squadron’s 14 planes – obsolescent torpedo bombers – returned. Shot down and presumed dead, Hodges was awarded the Navy Cross, and the Battle of Midway is counted as a turning point of the war.

Meanwhile, 2nd Lt. Leroy Cowart, who had attended Statesboro schools and graduated from Georgia Teachers College (now Georgia Southern University), was looking forward to life as a teacher, and had already served in the National Guard, Odegaard reports. But as soon as events began to draw the United States into World War II, Cowart joined the Army Air Corps, and he too became a pilot.

“But when his unit’s planes were destroyed on the ground in the Philippines during the initial Japanese attack, he picked up a rifle and fought as infantry until he was captured,” Odegaard notes.

After enduring the Bataan Death March, Cowart was loaded onto one of the infamous “hell ships” to be transported to Japan, but then that ship was attacked by American planes. Transferred to another Japanese ship, “after two years in captivity, he died of malnutrition in a POW camp,” said Odegaard. “He also never returned home to Bulloch County, and his ashes are in the U.S. National Cemetery in Manila.”

Two of the six Bulloch County casualties of the Korean War, Sgt. James A. Hunnicutt and Pvt. Charles H. Lord, also died while captured, and others, such as Staff Sgt. Larry B. Akins, whose B-29 was shot down in Korea, remain unaccounted for, Odegaard noted.

“Drone attacks, suicide bombers and roadside bombs seem like an impersonal way to be killed,” he said. “I was going to say ‘senseless,’ but if you come up with a sensible way to be killed, let me know.’’

But as his research revealed, attacks of this type accounted for some of the Statesboro area’s war deaths in Vietnam and a majority of those in Afghanistan and Iraq. A single suicide bomber attack in Iraq on Aug. 3, 2005, claimed the lives of Sgt. 1st Class Charles H. Warren, Spc. Jerry L. Ganey Jr. and Spc. Mathew V. Gibbs, all of the 648th Engineer Battalion of the Georgia National Guard, from the Statesboro Armory.

“This one incident left behind three widows and six orphans,” Odegaard noted. “Their families certainly deserve our honor.”

Memorial 2024
Veterans and guests sing God Bless America to end the annual community Memorial Day observance at the Emma Kelly Theater on Monday, May 27. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff


Often overlooked

“Often overlooked are those who die in accidents or illness. ..,” he  said, and reported finding that nine of the 61 Bulloch County service members listed as having died in World War II actually died from illness or accidents. “Yet these also died in the cause of freedom.”

That was also the case, he emphasized, with three other groups who he wants better remembered, but whose names seldom appear on monuments.

Capt. Thomas Lee Moore, a 1990 Statesboro High School and 1994 Georgia Southern graduate, died in an April 3, 2004, aircraft accident and is one example of those who died in accidents while preparing for war.

“The second forgotten class we need to remember are those who die later of wounds received in service  or exposure to the toxic chemicals used in combat,” said Odegaard.

His example, Eugene Longenecker, a career Marine whose exposure to Agent  Orange led to his death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1995, wasn’t from Bulloch County, but the speaker revealed a special relationship.

“I never met him and he didn’t live to see the day I married his daughter,” Odegaard said. “The war killed him. … He is not the only one and Agent Orange was not the only killer.”

The last group, “the one we ignore most,” he said, are those who die by suicide, but the first time Odegaard experienced a final roll call it was for a soldier who took his own life, while he  was in Ranger School.

“Every year since 2001 we have had over 6,000 active duty or veteran suicides a year, 22 a day,” he said. “I find it hard not to believe that with that many they aren’t in some way service-connected.”


‘Be the one’

This provided a tie-in with the American Legion’s “Be the One” campaign, for which Legion Auxiliary members had handed out cards in the lobby and for which American Legion Dexter Allen Post 90 Commander Gary Martin also spoke to request participation.

The campaign encourages each American to “Be the one to ask veterans in your life how they are doing, to listen when a veteran needs to talk, to reach out when a veteran is struggling.” The website is

Odegaard also suggested praying for the nation and its leaders, and recognizing that free speech means accepting that people we disagree with also have and deserve that freedom.

Noting that less than 21% of Bulloch County’s registered voters turned out for last week’s election and that he and his wife, Janet, now do community service as poll workers at the Nevils precinct, he also urged voting, and volunteering with organizations such as the food bank, or those involved with foster children, or churches and schools.

“How can you be the kind of person worth dying for? I think you know,” he said.

Joiner-Anderson Funeral Home and Memorial Gardens and the Averitt Center for the Arts joined the American Legion post in sponsoring the observance, as these organizations also do for the Veterans Day service in November.

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