Harford County has been sending its native sons and daughters off to war since Revolutionary times.
Monday morning, more than 1,000 residents of Bel Air and surrounding areas paid homage to those who didn't return from the battlefields across the centuries and the world with a stirring Memorial Day ceremony in Shamrock Park.
In welcoming veterans, their families and others gathered around the bowl of the park's amphitheater, among them Harford County Executive Barry Glassman, Richard Gebhard, past commander of Bel Air American Legion Post 39, recalled comments of retired Marine Gen. John Kelly, a 45-year veteran of the Marine Corps, following the death of his youngest son, First Lt. Robert Kelly, who was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.
Asked by a radio interviewer "if it was worth it" for sons and daughters to die in service to their country, Gebhard quoted Kelly's response: "The only person who has the right to answer are the young men and women who lost their lives." Kelly added, however, that he believed most would answer, "I was where I wanted to be."
"They answered with their actions and the lives…to make our country a better place," Gebhard continued, again quoting Kelly.
"General Kelly was right. Was it worth it was the wrong question to answer," Gebhard said. "Instead we should commit ourselves to make it worth it. We should insist that America remain the land of the free, a land where patriotism trumps politics, where the American flag is displayed prominently and frequently, and where military veterans are society's true celebrities."
"It's up to all of us to make it worth it," he said.
Recalling the men and women from Harford County who died in service to their country from the Revolutionary War to Iraq and Afghanistan, keynote speaker Brig. Gen. William E. King IV, commander of the 20th CBRNE Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, said Memorial Day for too many people "has simply become a three-day weekend that marks the beginning of summer."
Looking out over the crowd in front of him, King said: "Those of you gathered here know the reason."
King said while the world may have changed since those early patriots fought for freedom, "the dignity, the commitment and the courage of the men and women of the U.S. military remains the same. Those values live in the hearts of everyday heroes who risk everything for us."
"Your families, your neighbors, your friends have served in every American war and some have paid the ultimate sacrifice," he said. "These men and women now rest in the quiet fields across our land, but while the world and America has changed over the last 239 years, the values that drive the men and women in the Armed Forces remains consistent: honor, courage, selflessness."
Of those being honored on Memorial Day, King said: "Their sacrifice is a debt we can never replay, but one we will keep trying to repay."
Savannah Schultz and Alexia Nguyen, seventh-grade students at Southampton Middle School, read award winning essays they wrote about "What Memorial Day Means to Me."
"Memorial Day is about showing love and support for all our fallen soldiers," Savannah wrote, explainig that she makes it a point to spend part of every Memorial Day with her grandfather, who served in the military. Alexia wrote that people should forgo picnics and pool time for "a day to celebrate the soldiers who have fallen to protect this country."
Monday's 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. The Shanklins' son, Army PFC Roy Edward Shanklin, was killed in action in Vietnam in 1968.
Other wreaths were placed in front of the stage by members of American Legion Harford Post 39; American Legion Bel Air Post 55, 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 1198; and the Military Officers Association of America, Susquehanna Chapter.
Hosted by the Town of Bel Air and American Legion Harford Post 39 in Bel Air, the ceremony featured music by the Bel Air Community Band, under the direction of Scott Sharnetzka, and was joined by Chief Warrant Officer Don Teesdale, of the Maryland Army National Guard, who sang the national anthem and a number of patriotic songs, such as "America the Beautiful" at the conclusion of the ceremony.
The color guards were from American Legion Harford Post 39 and the 20th Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives Command at APG.