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Remembering the meaning of Memorial Day

First year since 2001 no Maryland service members have died overseas

By Matthew Hay Brown, The Baltimore Sun

3:53 PM EDT, May 24, 2014

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The annual Memorial Day observance at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, where officials, veterans and family members come together to honor the state's war dead, is traditionally a somber affair.

This year's ceremony will maintain that tone, but carry a distinction: It will be the first since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the start of the long wars in Afghanistan in Iraq, in which there is no new Marylander killed overseas to add to the rolls.

Janice Chance is grateful that no Maryland service member has died overseas in the last year. But with the United States out of Iraq and planning to leave Afghanistan this year, the president of the state chapter of the Gold Star Mothers also sees an opportunity.

Chance, whose son, Marine Capt. Jesse Melton III, was killed in Afghanistan in 2008, says the time is now to get more Americans involved in honoring the fallen and in serving the veterans.

"What we have found is once people get involved and engaged, they continue," the Owings Mills woman says. "We are committed to not allowing our children's legacy be forgotten."

Some advocates for the military have long bemoaned what they see as the slow decline of Memorial Day in the public consciousness. Many remember the parades and ceremonies of their childhoods, and visits to crowded cemeteries to decorate the graves of the war dead and other veterans.

The wars of the last dozen years, and the attention they have brought to service members and their families, might have helped to slow that decline, at least for the time being.

Still, Al Peterson finds the public's understanding of Memorial Day to be wanting.

"People know they have the day off, but they have no idea why," says Peterson, a veteran of the Navy. "It's become about sales at the mall and barbecues. And drinking."

Peterson is national chairman of the Committee to Restore Memorial Day, a group lobbying Congress to schedule the holiday each year for May 30, as Gen. John Logan first directed nearly 150 years ago.

Logan, a Civil War veteran who became commander in chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, ordered that May 30, 1868, be "designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land."

By then, Americans in both the North and the South had made a custom of decorating the graves of the nation's more than 600,000 Civil War dead. In one widely noted early observance, black freedmen in Charleston, S.C., gathered on May 1, 1865 — less than a month after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox — to clean up the graves of Union soldiers who had been imprisoned there.

Peterson believes anchoring Memorial Day on May 30 — the date it was observed until 1971, when it was moved to the last Monday of May — would help the holiday and its meaning stick better in the American mind, in the manner of Independence Day on July 4 or Veterans Day on Nov. 11.

"You don't celebrate Memorial Day," says Peterson, who was deployed to Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis. "It's a day to pay honor to all the men and women who died for our freedoms. That's 1.2 million, from the Revolutionary War on."

The day is still marked by ceremonies around the Baltimore region, including those at Fort McHenry and cemeteries in the city and beyond.

Russell W. Myers Jr., adjutant of the Maryland Department of the American Legion, says he's seen a strong Memorial Day tradition maintained in many communities. The difference of the last dozen years, he says, is that the ceremonies and observances are often led by new veterans, who in some cases are memorializing recently fallen comrades.

Myers retired last year after 27 years in the Maryland National Guard. He was in Afghanistan in 2012 when Maj. Robert J. Marchanti III, a fellow Maryland guardsman, was killed.

"I don't think Memorial Day has changed in meaning or intensity," Myers said. "The shift has been toward giving the current veterans the opportunity to put their own message on the holiday."

Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium began its annual ceremony in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War. It has honored all of the Marylanders who have fallen since the Sept. 11 attacks — from Marine Staff Sgt. Walter F. Cohee III, 26, of Wicomico, who died Jan. 20, 2002, in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan, to Army Capt. Sara M. Knutson, 27, of Eldersburg, who died March 11, 2013, also in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan — 120 in all.

Jack Mitchell is president of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. His family took over the cemetery — and with it, the annual observance — in 2007. This year, as in the past, the Historic Elkridge Young Marines placed thousands of small American flags on veterans' graves in advance of the Memorial Day event.

"We really feel privileged that we inherited the ceremony," Mitchell says. "We all have some debt to the military, and this is where they're given the greatest respect."

Last year, nine service members were honored. Seven died in Afghanistan; one was killed during a training exercise in Nevada and one in a plane crash in Washington state.

This year, the only honoree is to be Petty Officer 2nd Class Mark A. Mayo, 24, a sailor from Hagerstown. Authorities say Mayo was shot to death aboard the destroyer USS Mahan in Norfolk, Va., on March 24 while shielding a fellow sailor from a civilian truck driver who had taken her gun.

Mayo was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy's highest noncombat decoration for heroism, and buried last month at Arlington National Cemetery.

Chance, of the Gold Star Mothers, says the way to honor the fallen is to serve their comrades. She volunteers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda and the Baltimore VA Medical Center.

"My son was a servant leader," she says. "He was always concerned about the Marines on his team. He would tell me, 'I know that I'm nothing without them.' …

"Even though my heart hurts, I can choose to do something that helps others. I'm taking up his mission. I have more pride than pain."

The Gold Star Mothers take on projects to help those who are still serving and veterans — and encourage others to get involved.

Recently, they have sewn blankets for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and delivered personal-care items and clothing to residents at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore.

"We use words like 'heroes' and 'honor' and 'sacrifice,'" Chance says. "I want people to move beyond words. Put some action to it. Let it be tangible. Start volunteering."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens ceremony

When: 10 a.m. Monday

Where: 200 E. Padonia Road, Timonium

Features: 229th Maryland Army National Guard Band, wreath-laying ceremony and 21-gun salute.