"Today we remember those who are not with us because they sacrificed their lives for our freedom," Richard Gebhard, master of ceremonies for Bel Air's 30th Memorial Day Ceremony said in greeting the huge crowd gathered on the green and in the shade of Shamrock Park Monday morning.
Several hundred people of all ages attended the often somber and equally rousing tribute to those who gave their all to protect their country, featuring patriotic selections by the Bel Air Community Band under the direction of Scott Shametzka, speeches honoring the nation's "true heroes," stirring vocal renditions of the "Star Spangled Banner," "God Bless America" and "America the Beautiful" by guest soloist Don Teesdale and the laying of wreaths in remembrance by several local veterans organizations.
As the color guard from American Legion Harford Post 39 placed the colors to begin the ceremony, the brilliant sunshine and warm temperatures, moderated by gentle breezes, helped make the day and what it stands for one that won't soon be forgotten.
In his welcoming remarks, Gebhard, past commander of Bel Air American Legion Post 39 and coordinator of the annual ceremony, recounted the recent story of an 8-year-old boy in Ohio who found a $20 bill in a parking lot of an Ohio Cracker Barrel restaurant. The young man considered buying a video game with his good fortune, until he saw an Air National Guard officer and his family eating inside the restaurant and sent the $20 to him with a note, explaining his own father was in "heaven," killed in the line of duty in Iraq and asking the officer to "pay it forward" by remembering those who served.
Gebhard likewise urged his audience to "pay it forward" in helping the families of service men and women killed defending their country and our freedoms. He noted that the majority of those killed in action are under 25 and thus "in the eyes of their loved ones are forever young." He said sometimes families who lose a loved one need a shoulder to cry on and others need help with the education of children who are left behind.
"We honor the sons and daughters who died way too early," he said.
Chelsea Raff, a seventh-grader at Southampton Middle School in Bel Air, read her award-winning address: "What Does Memorial Day Mean to Me," the culmination of an annual program Legion Post 39 sponsors at the school.
"Because of these courageous men and women, I can do what other girls can't do," Chelsea wrote, calling those who died to protect the freedoms of her and other American girls "extremely special to me."
"We should pay tribute to those who have sacrificed for all of us," she concluded.
The ceremony's featured speaker was retired Marine Lt. Col. Ronald A. Clark, a veteran of four tours in Vietnam, whose talk dwelt on the contributions of all veterans in different wars, from World War II to the present Global War on Terror.
Clark conceded those who served in the Vietnam era were "fighting on two fronts," in the jungles and plains and later when they returned home to the "dissonance" among their countrymen who opposed the war, "and many of them are still suffering today."
But Clark also told the story of a soldier serving in Iraq who had written home to a friend who had served in Vietnam explaining his gratitude because the writer believed all the support being shown contemporary troops from back home was a direct result of people realizing their mistakes in the way the returning Vietnam soldiers, sailors and marines had been treated.
Clark urged those gathered around the bowl of the amphitheater stage from where he spoke not only "to remember to honor and pay tribute to those fallen heroes," he also challenged his listeners to remember living veterans as well, to "find out what you can do to make their lives better."
He said he is particularly concerned about the high suicide rates among those on active duty and those returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the health issues affecting women veterans, "the fastest growing segment" of the veteran population.
He also reminded the audience to pause at 3 p.m. Monday for a minute of silence, the National Moment of Remembrance, "for all of those who sacrificed for our freedom."
The annual wreath laying ceremony, with an honor guard from Marine Corps League, Harford County Detachment 1198, started with the placing of a poppy wreath from American Legion Auxiliary Unit 39, with Gold Star parents Roy and Virginia Shanklin doing the honor.
Other wreaths were then placed in front of the stage by members of American Legion Harford Post 39; American Legion Bel Air Post 55, American Legion Bel Air Post 55 Auxiliary; the Veterans of Foreign Wars; Bel Air Disabled Veterans Chapter 30; Vietnam Veterans of America Harford County Chapter 588; Military Order of the Purple Heart; WAC Veterans Association of Maryland, Free State Chapter 70; Sons of the American Legion, Squadron 39; Marine Corps League, Harford County Detachment No. 1198; and the Military Officers Association of America, Susquehanna Chapter.
Following the laying of the wreaths, a rifle salute was fired by members of Marine Corps League, Harford County Detachment 1198, and taps was played by former community band member Rob Bauerle, a former military bugler.
Teesdale brought the crowd to its feet when his voice soared above the treetops on the third stanza of "America the Beautiful:"
"O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness,
And ev'ry gain divine!"