Brenda Reese May held in her lap a pillow that said “My Son, My Hero” as his name was read aloud during the Memorial Day ceremony at the Virginia War Memorial on Monday.
“Donald C. May Jr. killed in action in Iraq, from Richmond,” recited Clay Mountcastle, director of the memorial.
A bell tolled, signaling that the Marine staff sergeant’s name had been added to the memorial’s panels, which honor the approximately 12,000 Virginians who have died in wars ranging from World War II to the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
“As often is the case, the names are not the most recent losses to a war, but identities that were brought to our attention by families or friends during the year and that we were able to verify and finally add to their rightful place of remembrance,” Mountcastle said with a nod to May. “These names are here now permanently. They will endure. Long after we are gone, these names will remain.”
The 31-year-old May was killed on March 25, 2003, when his tank was blown off a bridge during a sandstorm as U.S. forces advanced toward Baghdad. Navy divers found the tank upside down on the bottom of the Euphrates River.
May said she later found out that her son’s name hadn’t been added to the state’s memorial because he was still classified as missing in action. She contacted memorial staffers, who helped get her son’s status changed to killed in action.
A Vietnam War-era Marine Corps veteran herself, May said she wasn’t sure that she would come to the Memorial Day ceremony this year until a friend, Katie Suttles, gave her the pillow she held in her lap. She said she knew then that she had to come.
“I knew they were going to announce my son’s name for the first time today,” May said. “My son was so proud that his father and I served; he just had to follow.”
Donald C. May Sr. was awarded a Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Navy Cross for his service as a Marine in Vietnam.
Donald May Jr. left behind five children — one of whom he never met, as his wife was pregnant when he deployed, his mother said.
His name along with three others were added during the past year to Virginia War Memorial’s glass panels that overlook the James River:
- Army Pfc. Richard J. Harris of Henrico County, who was killed in action in Korea;
- Army Staff Sgt. Ben Maxwell of Appomattox County, who was killed in the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut; and
- Army Capt. Humayun S.M. Khan of Bristow, who was killed in action in Iraq.
At the memorial on Monday, Midlothian resident Gary W. Wiltshire gazed up at the names of those killed in the Vietnam War, looking for a childhood friend. The retired Air Force staff sergeant was wearing his blue uniform, though he added that it wasn’t the one he had retired in 30 years ago.
“It makes you appreciate life more,” he said. “All these guys you see on the wall here made the ultimate sacrifice. Being alive is a big gift and a big responsibility.”
After Monday’s event, the memorial’s director said he was “speechless” when he saw the size of the crowd. Jeb Hockman, a spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Veteran Services, estimated that more than 800 people attended in person and thousands more watched the livestream from WTVR.
Last year’s event was held virtually because of the pandemic and, up until two weeks ago, when Gov. Ralph Northam announced the lifting of all coronavirus-related restrictions, organizers had been planning an all-virtual event again this year, Hockman said.
The Virginia War Memorial opened its new wing in February 2020, just before the pandemic forced its closure for several months. The $25 million project added the C. Kenneth Wright Pavilion, a 25,000-square-foot expansion that includes a grand lobby, an exhibit hall, an art gallery, a research library and an underground parking lot, as well as a new Shrine of Memory, which honors Virginians lost in the war on terrorism.
Many at Monday’s ceremony had not seen the new wing since its completion.
“You just didn’t know what to expect,” Mountcastle said of the crowd size. “It speaks to the importance of the day that so many would come out to remember and honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.”