The bond between the beaches of Normandy and the grassy land around Medical Lake was palpable in the morning sun Monday, as 1,300 people gathered to commemorate those who died while serving in the U.S. armed forces.
The Memorial Day ceremony at the Washington State Veterans Cemetery was buffeted by unflagging winds, but the sun shone brightly on the somber circumstance. Even at half-staff, the big American flag stood sentry over the many others, pitching in the stiff southerly wind.
Though the audience was large and represented many types of people and branches of service, it paled compared to the number of people who died during their service, as Air Force Maj. Gen. Sandra Finan, who works for the secretary of defense, described during the ceremony’s keynote address.
“Today, we honor the fallen,” Finan said, noting the number of Americans killed in war, which some estimates count higher than 1.3 million. “That’s more than the population of Seattle. That’s more than the population of San Francisco. That’s more than four times the population of Spokane. These numbers truly humble us. … These were people woven into the fabric of our community. They were loved. They are missed. They made a difference.”
Finan was one of many speakers, including Col. Derek Salmi, commander of Fairchild Air Force Base and the 92nd Air Refueling Wing; U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers; and Rudy Lopez, director of the cemetery, which is run by the state Department of Veterans Affairs.
McMorris Rodgers, who is married to a Navy veteran, said the ceremony was a way to “honor a debt we can never fully repay.”
“We remember that freedom is fragile,” she said, adding that the service members who died were “driven by honor, duty and country” and “without those willing to serve, we have no government.”
Looking over the hundreds of people before him, Salmi pointed out the various colors of the military branches. At Navy blue, he paused, “Is it fleet week?”
Salmi, who took command of the local base and wing in June, told of the “courage, honor and incredible sacrifice” made by the U.S. soldiers and Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy 75 years ago. He recognized the beauty of U.S. cemeteries from “Normandy to here in Medical Lake” and the “solemn pride in our duty of remembrance.”
“Let us renew our commitment to the veterans who have fallen,” he said.
Near the end of the hour-long ceremony, 28 local service members who died but never received honors were recognized. Their names, dates of birth and death, branches of service and conflicts they served in were recited, including that of Luke Conley. Conley served in the Navy as an electrician’s mate petty officer, second class, from 1960 to 1964. He died in 2017.
On Monday, his sister, Dee Belzer, came from California to remember her brother, who was given a flag-folding ceremony while the honor guard fired three rifle volleys.
Belzer gripped the folded flag as the one above her whipped. A moment of silence was soon broken by Valerie Jeanne Stichweh singing “Amazing Grace.”
“Today and everyday, I honor their sacrifice,” Finan said. “We can be here today largely because of those who are not.”
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