Hundreds honor fallen at Memorial Day ceremony at Fort Vancouver

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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Larry Smith asked the crowd that gathered at Fort Vancouver National Historic Site for Monday’s Memorial Day observance to stand for what he described as a universally understood gesture of gratitude for those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

As the people rose, a group placed a wreath next to the flags of the branches of the military. As part of the annual commemoration, dignitaries offered their thanks, salutes were given with rifles and cannons, renditions of taps and “Amazing Grace” were played and a part of the fort’s history was restored. 

This year’s observance touched upon universal themes of sacrifice and gratitude that were tied back to Clark County, which has achieved 17 decades in the nation’s military history.

“The price of freedom is far from free,” said Smith, an Army veteran and the co-chair of the local Community Military Appreciation Committee, which organizes the observance. “We have paid with the lives of more than 1,185,000 Americans who died defending our country … Today we remember all fallen warriors, but specifically those in Clark County.”

Smith noted how the event was taking place near the Clark County War Memorial, which he described as “hallowed ground.” The memorial includes the names of the 575 servicemen and women with ties to the county who died in service to America. Dedicated in 1998, he said that since the attacks of Sept. 11 more names have been added, the most recent of which was Sgt. Jason Peto, a Marine who died in 2010. 

This year’s event included the dedication of an 80-foot reconstructed garrison flagstaff on the Vancouver Barracks Parade Ground. It was the culmination of a two-year project to reconstruct the historic flagstaff, which once overlooked the Columbia River at the outpost 165 years ago, and dedicate it to fallen American servicemen and women.

Tracy Fortmann, the National Park Service’s superintendent at Fort Vancouver, said that the flagstaff was not just a historic restoration project.

“The flagstaff standing tall and strong, seemingly at attention, reminds me of our fallen soldiers,” she said. “Their bravery and the bravery of their families that suffered this ultimate loss are embodied in this enduring symbol of our flagstaff and its colors.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt noted how Fort Vancouver became the first U.S. Army post in the Pacific Northwest in 1849 and has been a constant military presence through conflicts from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both world wars, and up to today. Though the historic grounds are no longer used by the military, an Army reserve center is located in Orchards.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you,” said Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, R- Camas, expressing her gratitude for those in the military. She said she would show her appreciation by highlighting their stories and advocating on their behalf.

Clark County council Chair Marc Boldt noted how the importance of Memorial Day is often lost during the three-day weekend.

“We can celebrate the three-day weekend and the start of the summer, but we can take time to honor those who’ve given so much,” he said.

Col. Duke Pirak, commander of the 142nd Fighter Wing of the Oregon Air National Guard, later added perspective on why it’s easy to ignore the importance of the day.

“Even this inattention is a sort of privilege afforded us by a valiant few,” he said.