Scott McCrae is about as Wallowa County as you can get. A 1967 graduate of Wallowa High School, academics were not his personal priority. He did OK in the classroom, but sports, hunting, and having fun were far more important.

One thing unique about Scott McCrae is the family he was born into. The son of Jim and Margaret McCrae, Scott arrived on planet Earth with a big family. Even today he estimates, if the count includes second cousins, that he’s related to 100 people who live here, mostly in the Lower Valley in and around the city of Wallowa.

And it isn’t like a Banner Bank commercial on Spokane television where myriad photos depict a bunch of people related to Banner Bank, but instead Scott is related by blood and marriage to those 100 people.

But this article is not about Scott McCrae. Instead it is written as a tool to maybe bring people back to a better understanding of the guts of Memorial Day, a holiday whose importance seems to have dimmed over time.

To Scott McCrae – who spent nearly 35 years in the Army National Guard and rose to the position of deputy chief of staff of personnel in Oregon’s National Guard – and wife Terri, Memorial Day truly is a big deal.

You see, their youngest son Erik, a recently promoted first lieutenant and platoon leader died June 4, 2004, halfway around the world in a place called Baghdad, Iraq.

From his youth, it was obvious that Erik was not your run-of-the-mill human being. Although his parents knew it before then, in the second grade while a student in Elgin, he took a test that said his mental makeup was that of a 7th grader. In that test, says his father, Erik recorded a score of 99.99 percent in every category but one. In that one it was a 99.5.

Scott McCrae’s attitude about both Erik and Erik’s older brother Kelby, who doubles as a sergeant in the city of Brookings police department and a major in the Army National Guard, is commendable and understandable.

He says he is proud of both of them and, retired, he’s willing to sit down with anyone for three or four hours to talk about his kids.

“Humility” is a word that slips off the tongue of the father when talking about Erik. “He didn’t realize how much smarter he was than the people around him,” says Scott.

After stops at different schools, Erik graduated from Tigard High School with a 4.0 GPA in 1996. But even the route to that degree took turns beyond the norm. While living in La Grande as a sophomore, Erik completed the highest level of math available at that school and attended Eastern Oregon State College where, unbeknownst to his collegiate classmates, he recorded the highest score of anyone in the class. He graduated high school with 35 college credits under his belt and graduated from Linfield College in 2½ years in 1999. He graduated cum laude with a double major from Linfield in math and applied physics while notching a 3.7 GPA.

Much like his father before him, Erik was a happy-go-lucky guy until he met a beautiful, sensitive young lady named Heather. For Scott it was Terri who gently, quietly encouraged her husband to maximize his talents.

Although they only knew each other for about a year before they were married and had two weeks together before he was deployed, Scott describes the two of them as “soul mates.”

On one occasion, oblivious to the awkward situation he was creating, Erik invited Heather to a dinner where his parents and brother Kelby and his wife were present, and he failed to tell Heather who would be there! Scott said she did fine at dinner, but when leaving, Heather punched Erik hard on the shoulder and told him never to do that again.

Erik, like Kelby before him, had to weather strenuous opposition from his parents before he even joined the Army National Guard. “I think everyone should serve their country, but didn’t want my sons to join the military because of me,” says Scott.

The strong-willed Heather got her way on an important issue that arose between them. Erik announced, because it would mean they would be apart for 1½ years, that they should not get married until he returned from Iraq. Heather didn’t speak to him for two weeks.

And so, two weeks before Erik was deployed to Iraq – an assignment he didn’t have to take but did because he refused to abandon the men (friends) he’d trained so hard with – the “soul mates” were married at Fort Polk, Louisiana, not exactly a romantic locale for nuptials.

Memorial Day is more for those left behind than for those who gave their lives for their country.

A believer, Scott says, “Erik is not there in the grave. That’s where his body is.”

Heather grieved for three years, and then remarried and has a son.

When Erik’s unit arrived in Baghdad, they were assigned to an area called Sadr City. That was the location the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr called home and Scott calls it “the epicenter of the insurrection.”

Although the war in Iraq officially had been going for three years then, it mostly was a smoldering affair where, though lives were lost and families throughout the states learned the reality of Memorial Day, the war’s violence had not yet peaked.

But the reality of war suddenly came home to Sadr City.

On June 4, 2004, Erik had about 30 men and six Humvees under his command. Their assignment that day was to patrol, check out mosques where much enemy plotting was conducted, and do traffic checks looking for weapons, ammunition, and explosives.

Erik neither drove a Humvee nor was a machine gunner because his job was to be the brains of his platoon, to make decisions and give the orders.

A message was received that a Humvee from Pennsylvania was under attack and was burning with a soldier inside. Erik instructed the driver of his Humvee and the drivers of the other two Humvees he was patrolling with to respond. When they arrived, two of his men, near-medics in their training, bailed out and ran to the burning Humvee. Erik stepped out to speak with another U.S. officer to better understand the situation.

And then, what’s known as an improvised explosive device detonated, instantaneously killing the two soldiers racing to the burning Humvee and knocking Erik to the ground. Within 15 minutes Erik was in a hospital, but the shrapnel wounds were too severe and he died four hours later.

His final words came when he tried to rise to his feet after being sprayed by enemy shrapnel. He asked, “Where are my men?”

Probably the most fitting way to end this article written to help readers better understand the meaning of Memorial Day is to refer to the Black Book. It says, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

 

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