Value of one: a 9-11 hero’s marker celebrates life, soothes personal grief

This year, 2021, is the 20th anniversary of the 9-11 attacks that took the life of Navy Petty Officer Kevin Wayne Yokum. It is also the first year my family has visited Veterans Memorial Park to spend time with the fallen shell that remains of Rodney Johnson. This is my year of “one.”

My dad and my hometown’s 9-11 fallen hero will be forever connected by their military service and the tiny plot of land in Lake Charles, La., they will share in perpetual care.

The twin towers in New York City are often associated with the terrorist attacks that took “a lot of lives” on September 11, 2001, but the 27-year-old Yokum died at the Pentagon. New York was not the one target of the attacks. One plane went down when United Airlines passengers refused to be a part of the mass murder and fought to their end in the skies over Pennsylvania. Yokum was on duty at the Pentagon when one plane was flown into the military facility. A three-day period passed before his family was notified that he was killed in the attack.

Before Yokum, became a Petty Officer 2nd Class in the U.S. Navy, he was an All-American kid who liked basketball, had a warm, inviting smile, and was well-liked among his classmates at LaGrange High School. After his death, he became much more well known as Lake Charles’s terror attack hero. City officials dedicated the Shattuck Street overpass to him, and he was honored in death as a symbol of both our loss and our determination to right those wrongs by … righting those wrongs.

In 2003, Lake Charles Officials dedicated the Kevin Wayne Yokum Memorial Overpass, adding a photo to the green highway marker. Photo by American Press.

Still, the nation’s “Never Forget” pledge of 2001 has helped us remember Yokum as one of those killed on that one day and in the total fight against terror.

It was better to have a name and face in which to associate while the nation had only a number— very big number of casualties that we should never forget. That number of 2,977 seemed huge until we lost nearly the same number of service members in Afghanistan over 20 years in war and the Afghan army lost nearly 30 times as many.

Numbers lost their allure in 2020 when the death toll from COVID-19 equaled or surpassed the 9-11 toll in just one day and for consecutive weeks. Percentages have been more popular: we are dismayed at the economic and social costs of a disease with just a 1 percent fatality rate. To our demise, our nation seems to ignore that “1” out of 100 deaths.

I am still moved by the bloodshed and the horrific loss of life, but as we face the 20th anniversary of the atrack and the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of “one” hits me hard.

Rodney Johnson

A precious younger cousin Brian Hanchett, also a retired sailor who would have been just a few years older than Yokum, said he recalled going to the hero’s funeral and seeing my father there. Daddy, a U.S. Army veteran, would have been in his mid-60s at that point, but retired from the Fort Polk base. I never knew that Daddy was at the funeral until today, September 11, 2021, although the monument to Yokum has become a landmark for finding my father’s grave when I visit.

We lost Daddy in June 2021 after two brutal years of COVID-19 and natural disasters that ruthlessly hit the city. Suffering was often brutal and grief is a luxury not always afforded to crushed family members. We just keep “trying to survive.”

I cherish his memory and value the sacrifice my one hero-dad made when he served his country at a time when his country was not honoring all of his civil rights. Daddy served and he waited. In death, he was honored with a hero’s burial, and he is the one symbol of patriotism I see when I think of God and country.  One is a powerful number when you know a person’s value and the depth of their sacrifice.

We all should cherish my town’s one fallen hero and each family should likewise grieve their loss family members and seek to ease human suffering on big and small scales.

My father’s one grave marker will forever rest directly to the left of the monument of Petty Officer Yokum, my town’s one special 9-11 hero. I vow to never forget the value of each human life and urge you to feel the “one” as you mention thousands.

By Frances Y. Spencer

Frances Spencer is a career journalist living and working in Metropolitan Baton Rouge. Her interests include faith and community-based journalism and Web and reader engagement. She is inspired by her daughter-collaborator Cecilia Grace.

#CherishLife #SaluteSacrifice

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