Friday, the day before the Memorial Day holiday weekend that is the unofficial start of summer, was field day at Richmond Drive Elementary School in Rock Hill.
It’s a day when little kids near the end of the year get to run and romp and soak teachers in water games and laugh. One of those wonderful kids is Jasmine Butler. She is 7 years old, in the first grade. Her mother, Nina Butler, volunteered at field day. Her grandmother, Cynthia Butler, who lives around the corner, has been a volunteer at the school for a quarter of a century.
Jasmine’s father, Carl, went to Richmond Drive. Her uncle, Kenneth James Butler, who wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, went there, too.
In the school’s yard, there is a cherry tree planted in 2005 next to a small granite monument. The tree has grown from a sapling to a tree. Trees and kids grow at this school. On that monument is the name of Lance Cpl. Kenneth James Butler. In 2005, when he was 19 years old, Jasmine Butler’s uncle died in Iraq while serving his country as a Marine.
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“Before I was even born,” said Jasmine.
Memorial Day weekend is for all the Kenneth James Butlers who died serving their country, said Nina Butler, Jasmine’s mom and Kenneth’s sister-in-law.
“He was so young,” Nina said of her brother-in-law.
One of Nina Butler’s best friends since the time she was a teen is Mary Dudley. Mary’s husband, T.J. Dudley, 29, from Fort Mill, was also a Marine. In 2011, T.J Dudley was killed in action in Afghanistan.
This weekend, Mary Dudley and her three kids, Taylor, Carter, and Jenna, are in Washington, D.C., for a special conference put on by a group that assists military widows and families. It is called Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors. TAPS, for short.
Taps was played for T.J. Dudley when he was buried a hero. Thousands in York County, most of them strangers, lined the roads in the funeral procession.
Now it is 2014, three years later, and Mary Dudley hopes people don’t forget T.J. Dudley or any military man or woman who died in these wars.
“I just want T.J. remembered for what he did for his country, and this weekend, Memorial Day weekend, is probably the most important of all,” Mary Dudley said by phone from the nation’s capital. “He gave his life for his country.”
Starting with World War I, 214 people from York County have been killed in military action. They volunteered for military service or were drafted and left mothers, wives and kids and never came back.
They were 214 people, white and black and Hispanic and Catawba Indian, who learned to read at schools just like Richmond Drive Elementary, which Kenneth Butler attended, and Fort Mill High, where T.J. Dudley was a student. Both of those men, Butler and Dudley, participated at school field days as children and with wide eyes told teachers that they wanted to be Marines. Both told people about wanting to make their family and community and country proud.
Both joined up with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in full swing.
They did make a community and state and country proud, and they paid with their lives so that the rest of us can fire up a barbecue grill on Memorial Day weekend, or toss a child in the air in a swimming pool in the most fun, unserious times of summer joy.
Kenneth James Butler learned to read, and dream, in the same classroom his niece Jasmine Butler learns in at Richmond Drive. In Jasmine’s room there is a stuffed bear with a Marine Corps uniform and the name Butler on it.
“It is for my uncle who I never met,” Jasmine said.
Jasmine said she wished she had a chance to meet her uncle. But she didn’t, because he died in a war while fighting to make sure she and every other little kid in America could have a field day and dream of some day becoming a cowboy or a cowgirl.