WAKEFIELD — On the front lawn outside Monsignor Matthew F. Clarke Regional School, a small tree grows inconspicuously between the parking lot and the classroom windows. A stone marker beneath identifies it as “The Freedom Tree,” dated 1973. The dedication is to Sgt. Lewis C. Walton and all prisoners of war and missing in action “with the vision of universal freedom for all mankind.”
Until recently, little more was known about Sgt. Walton or the events that caused the tree to be dedicated more than 40 years ago. Though respectfully maintained, the memorial and the soldiers it honors were members of another era, fighting a war that ended long before much of the school’s present community was born.
Then, earlier this spring, Director of Advancement Sara Marshall came across a box of historical records in a storage closet at the school. Contained in the box were photographs and newspaper clippings of the original memorial tree dedication, including a picture of Sgt. Walton’s children standing next to the tree with his nieces and nephew, who were students at Monsignor Clarke.
“I’ve been at the school for 10 years and I never knew,” said Marshall. “I never knew the tree had any significance and what it was for. And that’s when it struck me. We should be doing something.”
Marshall brought the newfound records to the attention of school administrators, who resolved to re-dedicate the tree and ensure its historical significance would be remembered by students for years to come. After some research, they learned the story of Sgt. 1st Class Lewis Clark Walton, whose sister, Maureen Martin, was a mother of four children at the school.
Sgt. Walton was on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when he and seven others were ambushed during a reconnaissance patrol on May 3, 1971. He had been missing in action for two years when the school dedicated its memorial tree in 1973.
Then, in 2007, the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) used DNA testing to identify Sgt. Walton’s remains, recovered from the site along with a St. Christopher medal and set of airborne wings he was known to carry. His son, Sergeant 1st Class Lewis C. Walton, Jr., who continued his father’s legacy and was serving in Iraq at the time, spoke with Rhode Island Catholic recently about the experience of learning his father’s remains had been identified after so many years.
“I was in Iraq at the time for the second time and I had been in contact with a man who worked at JPAC. And at the time he had spoken to me and said there were remains found but they were still going through the DNA process,” he said.
“Come to find out, they had a gentleman come down from JPAC who presented the course finding stating it was 99.9% chance that these were my father’s remains based off the DNA.”
Sgt. Walton, Jr., accompanied his father’s remains home to Rhode Island, where a funeral took place at St. Anthony’s Church, North Providence, and a burial at the Veterans Cemetery in Exeter. He said the burial brought closure to his family.
“Obviously it’s a relief that we could bring him home in any type of fashion,” said Sgt. Walton Jr. “I think it brought closure to my mom, who was left wondering with two small kids, as well as my aunt’s side of the family.”
Sgt. Walton Jr., and his cousins, the Martins, are among those participating in the re-dedication ceremony on Thursday, May 26. In addition to school families, faculty and staff, the event will be attended by local veterans’ groups, school alumni and town representatives, all coming together to honor the legacy of a soldier who was lost and then found, but never forgotten in the memory of Monsignor Clarke School.
“Maureen made it her life’s mission to make sure he wasn’t forgotten,” said Marshall, explaining how Sgt. Walton’s sister, now passed, continued to be active in POW and veterans’ groups her entire life. “We’re honoring the dedication of Maureen Martin and her family because they were so dedicated to the cause, and of course honoring Lewis Walton and his family for their service and sacrifice.”
Falling close to Memorial Day, the re-dedication ceremony will honor soldiers missing or lost in combat, as well as all veterans and active military who have given of themselves in defense of their country. School Principal Dr. John Finnegan said the ceremony has been an opportunity to teach the students about honoring military service members, a civic duty sometimes forgotten in today’s political climate.
“We owe a debt to those folks and in this crazy political world to give them the recognition they deserve,” he said. “We’re getting them [the students] ready for society.”
Several students are participating in the re-dedication, including eighth-grader Thomas Dziekan, who has been practicing taps on his trumpet to perform at the ceremony. Dziekan explained during a recent school day how he and his classmates have been learning about Memorial Day and the Vietnam War in class.
“It’s been pretty important not to forget people who are missing,” he said.
Steve Stuart, a member of the local Veterans of Foreign Wars Post who will also participate in the ceremony, said he knew Maureen Martin personally and was working at T. F. Green Airport the day her brother’s remains were brought home.
“I was in the receiving line when her brother came back,” he said. “It was very emotional. I was at the Veterans Cemetery when they crossed off his star.”
Stuart said he sees involving students in memorial ceremonies such as this one as important to making sure they understand the sacrifice of those who died in combat.
“It’s good to keep the children involved so they remember,” he said. “There are people who sacrificed their lives for them.”