Jon McBride's father didn't like to talk much about his service in World War I, but in the last couple of years before he died, he got it all off his chest.
"I guess he didn't want to get into it, such a painful memory for him, but finally he opened up and we spent almost a whole day and I wrote down just about everything I could think of that conversation with my father before he died," McBride said.
McBride's father was one of about 4 million Americans to serve in WWI. McBride himself went on to be a Navy pilot. He retired as a captain and became a NASA astronaut. He attributed his opportunities to "divine guidance."
Donning a blue NASA jumpsuit, McBride spoke to a crowd gathered at the National WWI Museum and Memorial to honor military personnel on Memorial Day, a somber finale to the long weekend marked by sales, backyard barbecues and trips to the lake.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
The event featured a keynote address by McBride; music by the U.S. Air Force of Mid-America Hot Brass Band, pianist Peter Dugan and operatic baritone John Brancy; wreaths placed to honor soldiers; and remarks by some of Kansas City's government officials. On the grounds of the museum were 140 American flags, representing the number of soldiers or veterans who die every week by suicide.
"Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder affects soldiers long after they leave the battlefield and increases the risk of self-destructive behavior," said Matthew C. Naylor, museum president and CEO.
Naylor said the museum was honored to raise awareness for fallen soldiers "and those who silently carry the burden of war and service."
Beyond the soldiers themselves, the event honored families who lost loved ones in the armed forces.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat, was Kansas City's mayor pro-tem the day six firefighters were killed in an explosion at a highway construction site of U.S. 71 at 87th Street. He said it was one of the hardest days of his tenure, and he expressed sorrow for families of fallen soldiers and first responders. When a loved one signs up to be a first responder or soldier, he said entire families sign up.
"I pray that your memories will bring you peace," Cleaver said.
U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder, a Kansas Republican, lamented the declining number of Americans in military service, saying fewer and fewer American families are connected to Memorial Day. He urged attendees to remember soldiers as people with families, not statistics.
"If we fail to take their individuals to heart, to remember their families, to remember their sacrifice, we lose sight of what it really means when we send our men and women of the armed forces into harm's way," Yoder said.
The last living American WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, died more than seven years ago, but Kansas City Mayor Sly James encouraged Memorial Day celebrators to remember the war.
In his remarks, McBride urged young people to take steps to pursue what they want to do. It was a long, circuitous road that led him to pilot the Space Shuttle Challenger on an eight-day mission in 1984.
When McBride was in high school, he got to meet President John F. Kennedy — then a candidate. A year later, Kennedy announced his plans to get the U.S. to the moon.
In college, he got the chance to go up in a Navy T-34 plane. He told the Navy pilot, "I'll have to miss a class, but let's go." That put him on the journey to becoming first a pilot and then an astronaut.
"So that afternoon I got a ride in a Navy T-34, and the first minute I was airborne, I knew that the rest of my life was going to be different," McBride said.