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While many see Memorial Day as the kick-off to summer fun, that’s not what the holiday is all about. It was established to remember military men who died in the service of their country. It got its start after the War Between the States to honor the war dead. The wars of the 20th century added more to those ranks.
This year, a young man named Andrew Pollard and a friend of his rode down from Massachusetts to honor 1st Lieutenant Joshua Booth, a Marine platoon leader who was killed by a sniper in Hadithah, Iraq on Oct. 17, 2006.
Booth was not a Bedford native. He was from Massachusetts and graduated from St. John’s High School, a Catholic school in Shrewsbury, Mass., in 2001.
Pollard was one of his classmates back then.
Booth, however, had Bedford connections. His father is a Bedford native and his grandfather still lives on Baltimore Avenue. According to Joshua’s father, Jack Booth, his great great-uncle was Blackburn Jordan, who commanded the 116th Infantry regiment before World War II. Jordan was one of the officers who was deemed to be too old and replaced before the unit shipped overseas in 1942.
Joshua Booth visited Bedford, with his parents, every year when he was growing up.
“We’d go sledding at the Peaks,” Jack Booth said. They also went boating at Smith Mountain Lake in the summers.
Joshua also had a chance to visit the newly completed National D-Day Memorial prior to heading off to college at The Citadel in South Carolina.
This gave him a strong emotional connection to Bedford.
Joshua Booth also had a burning desire to become a Marine officer. This worried his father because Joshua wanted to lead a Marine platoon in combat and lead from the front.
Joshua Booth was also aware of the fact that he could get killed doing this. Jack Booth said that his son asked if there was a family burial plot in Bedford. When he learned that there was a family plot in Longwood Cemetery he told his father that he wanted to be buried there if he were to be killed in action.
Joshua Booth gradated from The Citadel in 2005, was commissioned as a Marine 2nd Lieutenant the next day, and got married the day after that. Shortly after, he headed for the Marine base at Quantico for additional training and, shortly after, got his platoon.
“We visited him in August of that year,” Jack Booth recalled. “His goal was to bring all of his men home.”
It turned out that Joshua Booth was the only member of the platoon who did not return.
“Josh was a great American and one I think we are producing in short supply,” wrote Capt. Matt Tracy, his commanding officer after his death. “His ideas of self sacrifice lead to his premature death but it was how he lived his life — for others. Josh ensured that everyone around him had more than he did. His food, his time, his sleep, his equipment he freely gave away to ensure that his Marines and the Iraqi people were taken care. If there was danger he would shoulder a disproportionate amount, if there was praise he ensured it was laid at the feet of his men. Secondly Josh loved the people of Haditha. He genuinely enjoyed spending time with them. Even in the short time here he had made many friends and as we walked into people’s homes they would ask for him. Josh was also a warrior. The real thing — not like in the movies. Josh hunted men — relentlessly. He sought the enemies of the Iraqi and American people. Where do we find men like this?”
He was effective and, according to Jack Booth, that’s why al Qaeda brought in a sniper, a Chechen who had experience fighting the Russians in Chechnya, to kill him.
“He had a lot of passion,” commented Pollard. “He knew exactly what he wanted to do — he wanted to be a Marine.”
Pollard had planned to come down to Bedford to leave a note on Joshua Booth’s grave, a posthumous thank-you for his service.
Then, he got an idea and called St. John’s, his old high school, and told them what he planned to do and asked if any students wanted to write letters. His idea was to encourage them to think about what Memorial Day really means. He called them at 10:30 a.m. The principal made an announcement.
“Out of 700 students, we got 150 letters in about an hour,” he said. “I’ve got ‘em in my [motorcycle] saddlebag.”
Pollard said that everybody can learn a lot of lessons from Joshua Booth — lessons in courage and passion. And, there is also a willingness to sacrifice himself for something he believed in, something shared by other members of America’s armed forces.
“You’ve gotta show your respect,” he said.
Pollard said that this is one way he can do that.
The letters will ultimately end up in the Bedford Museum
“Josh loved this place,” Jack Booth said.
Joshua Booth liked the Bedford Museum because it had displays of Indian artifacts and items from the War Between the States and D-Day. Jack Booth said that his son was deeply interested in history. One time, he spent an hour and a half in the museum. This is why the family believes that the Bedford Museum is the ideal place for these letters. His mother, Debbie Booth, is also coordinating, with Jennifer Thomson, the museum’s genealogical librarian, the donation of some of her son’s military memorabilia.
The location of Joshua Booth’s grave is appropriate for a man who loved history. It’s in the oldest part of the cemetery and all the neighboring graves are those of people who died in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many were Confederate veterans.
Thomson recalls the first time she was in that section of Longwood Cemetery, shortly after taking the job at the museum. She was startled to find the grave of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2006 among these century-old burials.
And that’s how she first learned about 1st Lieutenant Joshua Booth.