By REID TUCKER
As has been done for the past 17 years, Gum Creek Cemetery in Glendale hosted Memorial Day observances honoring America’s military men and women killed in battle.
The annual ceremony commemorating the holiday was held at the cemetery, located just off SR-83 north of DeFuniak Springs, on Monday, May 28. An unofficial headcount revealed that a crowd about 160 people strong was in attendance, making this year’s gathering the biggest in nearly two-decade history of the ceremony.
Each year the Gum Creek Memorial Day ceremony brings in a keynote speaker, usually a high-ranking military officer, Army commanders from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan and a retired Air Force major general among them, to address the crowd, but this year’s ceremony was a little different. Speaker Mark McDuffie retired from the Air Force after 17 years at the rank of captain after being injured by a roadside bomb on March 2, 2007, during his second tour in Iraq.
McDuffie, the only member of his unit to survive the explosion, became a staunch advocate of veterans’ rights after he recovered from his injuries and is now an active member of the Wounded Warrior Project. Part of what he calls his “life’s work” is supporting wounded veterans directly, but another part is getting the word out about the importance of doing so to the public, which he said is often unaware of the challenges facing those wounded in combat or the struggles of their families. The bond that exists between those who have served is what compels him to do his part, he said.
“I feel like it’s my job for the rest of my life to pay respect to those who paid the ultimate sacrifice,” McDuffie said. “It’s my job every day to honor those who gave their lives for this country. Memorial Day is not about one day a year that we mark on the calendar and take off from work. Every day we should honor those who paid that sacrifice but also those still serving today. That’s what today is about, helping each other.”
Gum Creek Cemetery, one of the oldest in Walton County, is thought to be at least 160 years old. As such, it marks the final resting place of veterans from America’s wars all the way back to the early 19th century, with 12 known Civil War veterans and one confirmed Seminole Wars veteran. There are many veterans from 20th century conflicts, from World War I through the Korean War, buried in the cemetery as well.
Gum Creek Cemetery Trustee Don Wilkerson, who organized the cemetery’s observance program since its inception, said more than 1,000 grave sites are known to exist at the cemetery, though only about 500 are marked, meaning many more veterans of America’s 19th century conflicts are likely interred there. Some gravesites, some dating back to the 1850s, are marked with little more than boards and the identities of those buried there will never likely be known, he said.
Wilkerson, who served a combination of active and inactive duty in the Air Force during the 1950s and ‘60s, said this rich history makes Gum Creek Cemetery a fitting place for the Walton County community to remember the sacrifices of the nation’s veterans living and dead.
“Gum Creek is a very special place and this day is very meaningful for me,” Wilkerson said. “My father is buried here and I will be too, right beside him. This is a day when we honor those who gave up a part of their lives for the cause of freedom. Freedom is a very important treasure we often take for granted but it isn’t free. It comes at a cost, and today we remember the people who paid that price for us.”