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Memorial Day: ‘You are not forgotten’

Community: Residents gather to pay respects to military personnel of the past and present

Posted: June 1, 2010 2:10 a.m.
Updated: June 1, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Sylmar resident Jim Tukesbrey, Chaplain for the All Veterans Burial Squad, and United States Army Air Corps veteran, salutes the American flag.

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Boys sprinted up the hillside to their father, careful not to step on the grave markers of the veterans they came to honor.

He handed each of his boys American flags to wave.

Below them, near the gates of Eternal Valley Memorial Park, a line of larger flags flapped in the breeze — not only the Stars and Stripes, and state flag, but also the red of the United States Marine Corps, the blue of the United States Navy, the white of the United States Army, the United States Air Force flag, a yellow flag honoring Vietnam Veterans and black one for those missing in action.

The slogan on the MIA flag read “You are not forgotten.”

But, for the hundreds of Santa Clarita residents who showed up for Memorial Day 2010, it was obvious that all veterans, alive or dead, missing or found, were remembered in patriotic songs, tearful speeches and gun salutes, many of the honorarium punctuated with screaming jets flying overhead in tight formation.

“There were so many extremely emotional moments today,” said Patricia McKeon, wife of Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, who stood next to her shaking the hands of many in uniform.

“There was so much representation there, of so many different times in our history,” she said.

The most recent in our shared heroic history, however, happened only Friday when Marine Corps Pfc. Jake William Suter, 18, a graduate of West Ranch High School, died in Afghanistan.

Memorial Day 2010 in Santa Clarita began with a profoundly fresh memory of local courage.

“Can we have a moment of silence for Marine Jake Suter?,” said Bob Kellar, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Veterans Memorial Committee.”

The sound of flapping flags was suddenly the only sound heard on the cemetery’s green hills, as veterans from wars spanning more than half a century stood shoulder to shoulder with each other and with the friends and family who love them, all honoring a moment of silence for Santa Clarita’s most recent hero.

Silence gave way for several short speeches, each punctuated with hearty applause, and rousing songs such as “The Hymn of Victory” by the Santa Clarita Valley Concert Band, under its conductor Tim Durand.

At one point, an AT6 aircraft buzzed the crowd to wild applause.

Half a dozen other World War II AT6 aircraft, all with the Condor Squadron, flew over the ceremonies in tight formation.

Young and old, on the ground and above it, in uniform and out, people showed their respect.

“We started putting this whole thing together in November,” said retired Quartermaster Senior Chief Duane Harte of the U.S. Navy, sporting a blindingly bright, white uniform. “We wanted to make this year a special occasion.”

And it was.

Cars were parked for more than half a mile on either side of Sierra Highway by those coming to show their respect.
Young Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts of America had, on Sunday, planted flags at the grave site of every fallen serviceman and woman at Eternal Valley.

As well, gray-haired vets, some sporting vests to show they served in Vietnam, some using walkers, some near oxygen tanks and some like U.S. Marine Pfc. Johnnie Beach had served in the World War II at Iwo Jima.

In appreciation of his efforts and all military efforts, a group called the Young Marines staged a reenactment of the Iwo Jima flag-raising on the hill overlooking Eternal Valley.

From the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner” by Erike and Danielle Christopher to the raising of flags by the Air Force Junior ROTC of the William S. Hart School District to the firing of rifles by the All Veterans Burial Squad, master of ceremonies Col. Bill Kennedy of the United States Air Force (retired) introduced a wide range of proud participants, each calling attention to, most certainly, those “not forgotten.”

The celebrated vets, some of whom he asked to stand up, included: guest speaker Lt. Cmdr. Patrick Connelly of the U.S. Navy (retired); U.S. Marines Corps Cpl. Dick “Tarzan” Jeffrey; and U.S. Marines Capt. Tom Johnson in his crisp green uniform.

Memorial Day, after all, is about remembering, and memories run as deep in Santa Clarita as anywhere across America.

Marilyn Hackett read a “letter from the field” that had been written by her father in the World War II, after which her father stood up in the crowd to frenzied clapping.

In reaching back some 40 years, local organizers of Memorial Day 2010 also seized the chance to decorate a local Vietnam veteran with the Bronze Star.

Cpl. James Lee Miller said he was overcome with emotion Monday when he received the Bronze Star from Congressman McKeon on a day when so many are remembered.

“It’s overwhelming,” he said quietly after receiving the medal. “So many people went to such great lengths to make this happen.

“When I got home from Vietnam I was very bitter.  I lost a lot of close, close friends and I’ve been through a lot. I came home to a reception that was ...”

Miller stopped for a moment, recalling a reception four decades ago that was markedly different from the praise and respect heaped on him Monday.

For years, he said, a fellow serviceman struggled with the notion of officially recognizing the heroism that unfolded in Vietnam.

“Every time I saw him he said ‘No, we have to make this happen’ and I kept telling him to let it ride and he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t live with it.

“So, he got Congressman McKeon involved and then, together, and along with a lot of other people. They were relentless.  They just couldn’t let it drop.

“That’s very humbling and overwhelming for me. It really is ... It’s something I wouldn’t have appreciated 40 years ago,” he said. “I didn’t have the attitude for it, but you kind of mellow with time.

“These friends are like brothers to me and 42 years later, we’re closer than we’ve ever been.

As Miller held his bronze medal, his daughter Jessica and her daughter Haley, 3, looked on, beaming with pride.

“It was very emotional,” she said. “He didn’t talk about it for so long. We’re very proud of him. It’s definitely time for him to be recognized.”

Memorial Day 2010 closed with Miller reading the names of heroes on Eternal Valley’s Memorial Wall, as did David Gauny, Bob Haueter and Corp. Miller’s pal and fellow serviceman Bob Good.

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