Walkers of all ages made their way up the hill to the Pleasant Valley Cemetery, their feet moving to rousing music played by the William F. Myers and Sons band, already set up in the cemetery. It was Sunday, May 28, and they'd departed from St. Matthew's United Church of Christ in Pleasant Valley, a small child leading the group. Her hair lifted in the wind, and she waved her American flag as the band picked up the beat.
At the top of the hill, Jane Speicher, of Laurel, placed flags on the graves of her husband, Charles Oliver Speicher, who served at the Panama Canal, and her brother in law, James Hahn, a veteran of WWII.
"My husband was my life. He and Jim served for the same reason, to give us the freedom we have today. Without them, where would we be today?" Speicher said. "They are both very dear to my heart."
The parade and service, an annual tradition for the town of Pleasant Run, drew a crowd of over 75 people. And, although the intent of this federal holiday, observed on the last Monday of May, is for remembering those who died while serving in our armed forces, the Pleasant Valley celebration honored those in service today, as well.
"There was a nice high school behind the church years ago," Bowersox said. "The high school students used to march up the hill, bringing iris flowers to the graves on Memorial Day. They would carry the irises, which used to be called flags, and roses up the hill. We brought the walk back in 1979, on the 100th anniversary of our church. The Lions Club and Pleasant Valley 4-H and the fire company always participates."
Bowersox said it is important to keep this tradition intact.
"Today's kids don't always appreciate or understand wars," she said. "It is a good thing to continue this for posterity and so that kids have it in their minds too — what Memorial Day really means. It's not just about picnics and swimming."
After walking up the hill, Heather Geiman, along with her husband, John, and their four children, placed small American flags on the graves of veterans. The Pleasant Valley resident explained why they were there.
"[My husband's] great grandfather and great-great grandfather fought for our country and they are buried here. It's special to honor the veterans so they aren't forgotten. This generation sometimes forgets about their sacrifice and what they have done for our country."
Her 4-year-old son, Ryan, shared why he was helping.
"Because people that died in the war died for other people," he said.
Bowersox welcomed the crowd, then there was the pledge to the flag, the American anthem and a bit of scripture before eight veterans of all ages stood to be recognized. Twenty-four-year-old, Phyllis McKenzie touched the audience by singing, "Heaven Was Needing a Hero." Then Carroll County States Attorney Brian DeLeonardo stepped up to the microphone.
"Over 48 million Americans have served our country since 1776, and all who have put on the uniform have done so with the understanding that they would do whatever was necessary to protect our freedom, even if that — sadly — comes at the price of their own lives," DeLeonardo said. "And that is a price that over a million Americans have paid over the course of their duty."
A section of DeLeonardo's moving speech was dedicated to the quiet sacrifice of one Maryland veteran named John, who joined the Marine Corps as a teen, served his tour of duty and returned to Maryland, a man. Shortly after, he married.
Then, in 1965, as the battles raged in Vietnam, he again felt the call to serve. This time he enlisted in the Air Force because he really wanted to become a pilot.
"He found himself in Thailand, serving for years as a plane mechanic in support of bombing and deforestation. This included repeatedly working in and around places spreading Agent Orange with no protection," DeLeonardo said, noting that — at home — John's wife had given birth to his first son.
"He now realized he was not only fighting for his country, but for his new family. He looked to take on duties as an inflight mechanic and this required passing a physical exam. That is when he discovered he had tumors all over his body."
John, at age 26, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, later linked to his exposure to agent orange. Surgery, chemotherapy and heavy radiation followed. He was told he could have no more children and that he could expect to live five years.
"Can you imagine returning home to a 1-month-old son, 26 years old, with a five-year life expectancy?" DeLeonardo said. "But that is only part of the difficulty he experienced, because, as we know, many veterans back then were treated in a very shameful manner — as if their service to this country was somehow criminal."
John faced down his medical issues, tangling with post-traumatic stress disorder as well. DeLeonardo said he "beat cancer into remission five more times," turning his five-year prognosis into 23 more years of life. He focused on his son, struggling to be sure his son would be the first one in the family to graduate high school, then college, and then law school.
When John lost his life at age 44 in a VA hospital in Baltimore, his son was just 23. Because his father would not speak of his service, his son knew little of that sacrifice until, when packing up his father's things, he found a box with his father's dog tags, many medals, a plaque from his squadron and other military items, exposing the magnitude of his sacrifice.
It was then that DeLeonardo revealed that the John in his story was actually his father.
"His is one of many stories of sacrifice for this country," he said. "There are, in Maryland alone, over 450,000 veterans that each that have their own stories — 450,000 stories — of sacrifice."
As a band member played taps, echoed by another, the flag snapped in the wind and a rooster crowed deep in the valley. In the silence that followed, many no doubt reflected on the power of the sacrifice that so many have made.
"It's important — especially for nonveterans — to show that appreciation," DeLeonardo said. "I suggest we thank them by always honoring and recognizing all of our veterans and assuring we do everything we can to help our active military members, our veterans and the families of those who do not return home."