Based on his research and calculations, the Rev. Lewis Geigan estimates that more than 1.7 million Americans have given their lives to protect their country.
"Men and women that paid the ultimate price for the freedom that we've had," Geigan, the chaplain for the American Legion's North Central District, told those who gathered in Shamrock Park in Bel Air Monday for the town's Memorial Day observance.
"May we never forget what they've done for us," he continued.
Bel Air, along with Aberdeen and Havre de Grace, held Memorial Day observances Monday. The ceremony in the Harford County seat was put on by the town and American Legion Post 39 of Bel Air.
The event included performances by the Bel Air Community Band and vocalists Rossanne Mooney, Jane Leff, Doug Shuman and Phil Pace, speeches about the importance of Memorial Day and remembering Americans who lost their lives in wartime, the placing of poppy wreaths by local veterans' organizations, a rifle salute by Harford County Detachment 1198 of the Marine Corps League and more.
Dick Gebhard, past post commander and current board chairman for Post 39, and the master of ceremonies Monday, spoke of the late Marine Sgt. William Stacey.
Stacey was killed in January of 2012 while on his fourth deployment to Afghanistan,Gebhard, reading from prepared remarks., said. Stacey, a native of Redding, Calif., was 23 years old.
Gebhard read an excerpt from a letter Stacey wrote in case he should be killed.
The young sergeant had written that "my death did not change the world," but it was worth giving his life if it meant even one Afghan child could enjoy the same freedom Stacey had in the United States.
"If my life buys the safety of a child who will one day change this world, then I know that it was all worth it," Stacey wrote.
Gebhard said during his speech he "would argue that the sacrifice made by Sgt. Stacey and countless other American heroes has indeed changed the world."
Army Col. Kenneth Tarcza gave the keynote address Monday. He mentioned retired Air Force Capt. Thomas Sheehan, a Monkton resident and Korean War veteran who wrote a scathing letter to his hometown newspaper in Indiana, Pa., after attending a local Memorial Day ceremony in 1966 and seeing only a handful of people.
Tarcza cited a Gallup poll which indicated that nearly 50 years later, only 3 percent of Americans formally celebrate Memorial Day.
"But that in no way diminishes the significance of our gathering," he told those gathered at Shamrock Park. "If anything, it elevates the importance of this year's event and for each succeeding year."
Tarcza lives in Bel Air and is with the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground.
He also spoke about the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial in France, where more than 14,000 American service members killed during World War I are buried. He spoke of the efforts made by French citizens each year to honor the Americans who gave their lives to help liberate France from the Germans.
Tarcza encouraged audience members to not "be bashful about taking every opportunity to thank service members and their families for their call to duty and their sacrifices they are prepared to make on your behalf, and that of our nation, which we'll never be able to match."
The audience also heard from Conner Hall, a Southampton Middle School seventh grader, who won a school essay contest on the meaning of Memorial Day.
Hall spoke about how Memorial Day means "freedom" for him because of the sacrifice of others. He noted soldiers have committed themselves to fight, despite giving up the comforts of home, and those who died left behind loved ones who still grieve for them, even decades later.
"Many people are still mourning the loss of loved ones to this day," he said. "It does not matter what war they fought in, whether it was Iraq, World War I or II, Vietnam or the Korean War; the lives still mean a lot to them."
One person in the audience came close to losing his life during the Vietnam War. Charles Mason of Bel Air was serving with the Marines in country in 1969.
Mason, a sergeant at the time, was involved in a firefight when a grenade landed nearby.
"I was trying to get rid of it when it went off," he said, speaking to The Aegis before Monday's ceremony in Bel Air began.
Mason lost his right arm and both legs. A man who was speaking with him before the ceremony noted how much he had given for his country.
"I've tried to never think of it that way," Mason responded. "I just did what I had to do."
He went on to graduate from college and get married; he and his wife, Lianna, recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.
Mason remembered his fellow Marines who were lost in Vietnam, and whose names are inscribed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in Washington, D.C.
"There's things that we do here, I think, as a reminder to everyone that anyone that didn't come back isn't forgotten, and we're here to recognize them and thank them and know that it's helped us to keep our freedom and to have what we have today," he said.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun