news-category: Memorial Day Prayer Service

Gardner-Webb Remembers Lives of Fallen Service Members During Memorial Day Observance on May 24

The audience listens to the speaker for memorial day
Retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. John Whitaker shared a personal story to remember his friends who gave their lives on a mission to save others.

Retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. John Whitaker Relates Story of Sacrifice

BOILING SPRINGS, N.C.—Gardner-Webb University faculty and staff, along with members of the community, gathered in front of Hamrick Hall on May 24 to pay tribute to those who have sacrificed their lives serving their country. In his speech, retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. John Whitaker shared a personal story to remember his friends who gave their lives on a mission to save others.

Gardner-Webb President William M. Downs underscored the significance of Memorial Day, saying it is not about backyard barbecues or clearance sales. “Memorial Day is a solemn responsibility to carry out our lives in ways that would have made those who lost their lives proud,” Downs affirmed. “Our own daily stresses and struggles seem small, so very small in comparison to those struggles endured by the men and women that we have gathered to honor — Those men and women from our own community, who answered the call to defend freedom; those men and women from our own community, who overcame fear to face down evil; those from our own community, who boarded ships or planes or in some other way raced toward conflict rather than shrinking from it.”

Vice President for Christian Life and Service and University Chaplain Dr. Josh Parrott gave the welcome and invocation. Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Music Dr. Aaron Rice sang the national anthem. Vice President for Advancement Nate Evans lead the responsive reading from Psalm 67:1-7.

Downs introduced Whitaker, a native of Gastonia, N.C., and serves as discipleship pastor for City Church, a multiple campus church of over 3,500 members. He is also executive director of Hope4Gaston, a Christian non-profit that over the past 10 years has provided food to over 500,000 individuals, remodeled over 800 houses for families in need, and operates a free clothing store that has served over 250,000 individuals.

He served 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 2011. Whitaker spent 10 years of his military service flying in support of America’s War on Terror. He has accumulated over 2,500 hours of total flight time as a C-130H3 Flight Engineer. Whitaker has over 1,000 combat hours flying missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also has over 500 hours of flight time dedicated to humanitarian missions involving hurricane relief, providing food in developing countries and firefighting missions in the Western United States.

The story that Whitaker told occurred during a firefighting mission in the U.S. He and other members of his unit had just returned home from Afghanistan. Four of his friends were called to fight fires in South Dakota. The aircraft was stuck by a microburst and all of them died. One of his friends had just welcomed his fourth child, a one-month-old daughter with three older brothers.

Through his somber words, Whitaker also provided hope. “I know an Air Force Squadron with this motto, ‘This I do that others may live,’” Whitaker related. “I believe that if Jesus had a tattoo, that’s what it would have said, in Hebrew, of course. Mottos are inspiring until the gravity of the situation becomes a reality. So, what are we that are left behind to do? We remember. We honor. We stay in the fight. My dead friends stayed in the fight, so others may live. Through this tragic story of sacrifice by my friends, I am reminded of even a greater sacrifice. I would like to offer today, a perspective grounded in the Christian faith, which has long been a source of comfort strength, hope for many in times of loss and remembrance.”

He continued, “On this Memorial Day celebration, we are called not only to remember those who have fallen but also to honor the legacy of the living ones, and the lives, and the purpose and integrity of those left behind. We are reminded that freedom is not free. In the face of this sobering reality, we must ask ourselves, ‘How can we best honor their memory?’ We must commit to living lives that reflect the values which they fought and died for … let us also stand in hope. Our Christian faith assures us that death is not the end. And those who have died in Christ are now in his eternal embrace.”

After Whitaker’s remarks and devotion, Vice President for Student Development and Dean of Students Lesley Villarose conducted the Remembrance of The Fallen: Silence is observed as the bell tolls 21 times, the highest military honor to those who died defending our freedom and democracy. Associate Vice President of Marketing Wilson Brooks played Taps. Downs gave closing remarks, and Associate Minister for the University for Pastoral Care Stacy Simmons offered the benediction.

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to nine colleges and schools, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at

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