Organizers of this year’s Memorial Day event expected nearly 1,000 people to take time to remember and pay tribute to those who gave their lives for their country.
But when the 11 a.m. ceremony was started, nearly every chair at the Clark County War Memorial was filled to 30 rows back. Dozens more observers spilled out onto edges of the grass, making for perhaps the largest crowd yet at the annual event, which started in the 1980s.
Still, the focus was on the Gold Star families seated in the front rows — survivors of those who died in service to America.
“For you, sacrifice is a daily memorial,” said U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, who was one of the speakers at the 90-minute event.
Beutler related her experience last Thursday where she participated in an event honoring fallen servicewomen.
“To walk through those grave markers at Arlington (National Cemetery) reminds us that freedom is not free,” she said.
Though there are no soldiers’ graves at the Clark County memorial, there are three names freshly etched in the gray granite since last year’s tribute: Army Sgt. Earl D. Werner and Chief Warrant Officer Jonah D. McClellan and Marine Sgt. Jason D. Peto.
As the crowd watched, representatives from each of the three families took turns laying wreaths of red and white carnations in the memory of the fallen troops. A blast from a nearby howitzer punctuated the silence.
“Thank you for allowing your sons, daughters, wives and husbands to serve this great country. … Their sacrifice is not forgotten,” said retired Army Col. Mark Snyder, a Desert Storm veteran who served as the military host for the event.
Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt noted the war memorial was erected on the site of the former post chapel and holds the names of 575 service members from Clark County killed beginning with the Spanish-American War. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, 15 names have been added as casualties in the Global War on Terror.
Leavitt read a proclamation recognizing Memorial Day at the Vancouver Barracks.
“Make this a personal matter for those around you,” the mayor said. “This is an obligation each of us ought to share.”
Keynote speaker Fred Aronow, a Vietnam War veteran who rose to the rank of colonel before retiring from the military to serve on the veterans court bench in Spokane County, spoke of the difference in public attitudes 40 years ago and now.
He recalled returning home from Vietnam, where he had fought during the Tet Offensive, and participating in his first Memorial Day event. Like Monday, he wore a miniature Combat Infantryman Badge as a symbol of pride — and recognition. But when he ran into a fellow veteran wearing a CIB, they merely exchanged glances and nods.
Today, it’s much more acceptable to speak of veterans’ service and sacrifice.
“America has finally separated the warrior from the politics of war,” Aronow said.
Unfortunately, at the same time terrorism has blurred the lines between combat and support roles, making every service member — even those who drive trucks instead of tanks — at risk, he noted.
Monday’s event was organized by the Community Military Appreciation Committee, a nonprofit group founded in 2009. Larry Smith, a Vancouver city councilman and retired Army officer, was the emcee. For the first time, the event was underwritten by a corporate sponsor, Waste Connections.
As at past Memorial Day events, music was a big part of Monday’s ceremony. The 204th Army Reserve Band and the Fort Vancouver Pipe Band, both based in Vancouver, played, and Vancouver Police Officer Rey Reynolds, who is known for his magnificent singing voice, sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Bless the USA.”
Reynolds also provided some of the most heartfelt words of the day. After remembering fallen officers he has known, he turned to address the Gold Star families.
“Thank you, families, for giving so much for us,” he said. “Let us be proud to be Americans.”
Craig Brown: 360-735-4514; firstname.lastname@example.org.