The origins of Memorial Day, Rep. John Wheeler told Garden Citians on Monday, stretches back to the Civil War, as American women decorated the graves of ally and opposing soldiers alike, honoring each as someone’s child lost to battle.

Over a century later, the scene echoed — in a sense, anyway — at Valley View Cemetery. At the end of a trail of American flags flying half-staff, young and old gathered in a hub of smiles, light chatter and, eventually, the low hum of Vets for Veterans motorcycles rolling up to the ceremony. And away from all of them, lingering in small groups or alone, stood stragglers, silently standing beside the graves of loved ones fallen.

At the cemetery’s ceremony that morning, women of local auxiliaries would hang memorial wreaths and a veteran would drape an MIA/POW flag over a lone chair. The small crowd would pray together for the memory of those lost and the peace of those left behind, and listen to a list of 39 local veterans, including some who fought in World War II, who had died in the past year.

But first, they listened to Wheeler speak about what that meant. It was good to honor all current and former soldiers, he said, but Memorial Day is about remembering those no longer here.

“You see, there is a difference,” Wheeler said. “Armed Forces Day ... is for those who currently wear the uniform. Veterans Day on Nov. 11 is for those who used to wear the uniform. Memorial Day … is for those who never made it out of their uniforms.”

The number of American soldiers killed in the line of duty over the decades numbers in the millions, Wheeler said. Unfortunately, that loss is one with which many families, including those in Garden City, are well acquainted, he said.

Including him. Wheeler called back to Garden City men lost in the Vietnam War, including Wayne Proberts and Wheeler’s classmates, Merlin Ball and Bobby McKain. Hundreds of miles away, their names are carved in granite at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, he said.

And they weren’t the last. Just southeast of the crowd lies Seth Algrim, who died during a training exercise in California in 2006, he said. Near him rests Travis Bachman and, in Arlington National Cemetery, Clint Upchurch, two casualties of improvised explosive devices in Iraq, in 2007 and 2006, respectively.

Years ago, they had been home with their families. Now they are home, but apart from them.

Wheeler reflected on the day officers came to Garden City, to his office, to tell Bachman’s wife, Amber, that her husband had died. Wheeler said his office administrator received a call from the officers to find a place for Amber, their co-worker, to be alone. And they waited. When the officers arrived, Wheeler stood outside in the hallway.

“I will never, ever forget that grief-stricken, mournful cry from Amber as she was told of Travis’ death. I cannot forget … ” Wheeler said. “This day remains one of my most painful remembrances. And I know there are cries like Amber’s going up all over the country, nearly daily. The anguishing pain of losing a loved one in the service.”

On Memorial Day, we remember them, too, he said.

As the morning neared a close, Wheeler turned to the “bloody red” paper and wire poppy flowers guests wore in their shirt buttons, lapels, hats and hair. They were handed out for free that morning, but years ago they were sold outside storefronts to benefit disabled or hospitalized veterans, he said. Wheeler missed the poppies, he said, but he was thrilled to see them this day.

As he read “In Flanders Fields,” a 1915 poem that bore the tradition, guests sitting in lawn chairs or standing in the shade alongside or in-between graves looked down at their poppies. Two young boys crouched over one on a blanket. A man stretched out the slip of paper on his calling out the Veterans of Foreign Wars’ veterans assistance programs. Farther away, an older man gripped his as the boy next to him played with the petals.

And, throughout the cemetery, flowers grew, bloomed and stood as marks of love to the dead.

 

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.