GEORGETOWN, Texas (May 29, 2013) -- Veterans of every conflict since World War II gathered with family, friends, and dignitaries including the highest-ranking enlisted Soldier in the U.S. Army, for a solemn Memorial Day ceremony amid the green trees and immaculately landscaped grounds of the Georgetown-Williamson County Veterans Memorial Plaza, May 27, 2013.
A steady stream of people began filling the plaza hours before the event began, many carrying their own lawn chairs as the 700 provided seats were immediately filled. Overhead, a patchy curtain of clouds moved across the sky, reflecting the serious nature of the day.
"I was watching the news this morning, and the reporters on three different channels all used the same term: Happy Memorial Day," said Sgt. Maj. of the Army Raymond F. Chandler III, the keynote speaker at the event. "I'm not sure that's the right feeling we should be having, on this day that we memorialize and remember those who have died for our freedom. I think a better word would be grateful."
"Today Americans across the country are gathering to express their gratitude, celebrating with a parade, or a backyard barbeque," Chandler added. "But it's not about a four-day weekend. The message is that many people have paid the ultimate sacrifice for our country, and we need to stop and remember what they gave so we can remain free."
Barbeques and long weekends didn't seem to be on anybody's mind at this event, as a quiet atmosphere of reverence permeated the air from start to finish. Speakers delivered their messages to a sea of faces sprinkled generously with ball caps that proudly declared their owners to be retired service members, Veterans, VFW members, Purple Heart recipients, and more. Every branch of service was represented.
This was a deeply patriotic crowd of Texans, filled with people who carried a personal understanding of the high price of freedom.
"My roommate at (Texas) A&M and I joined the service together," said WWII Veteran and retired Navy Lieutenant Ed Carr. "His name was Kyle Drake. He joined the Marines and I joined the Navy, and we both wound up at Iwo Jima ... but he didn't make it back. I think about him every year on this day."
"What I think of is the people that I knew in Vietnam that didn't come back," said Carr's son, retired Navy sonar tech Ed Carr III, who lingered with his father in the shady park after the memorial was over, holding back tears. "If they hadn't done what they did, we wouldn't have what we have today."
Chandler used a good portion of his time on the podium to speak about five Soldiers who lost their lives in separate incidents in Iraq, including some he knew from his time there.
"Those five Soldiers I spoke about were personal losses to me," he explained. "I was there when each one of them died, and it's very hard to remember those circumstances. Today, as sergeant major of the Army, I suffer every loss."
He made a point to stress that every American hero lost at war creates a ripple effect through all the people they were close to.
"We can't forget that there is also a family with that young man or woman who is today remembering their loved one with some sorrow," he said.
As he neared the end of his speech, and a light breeze rustled through the trees, Chandler acknowledged the unusually mild temperature for this time of year in Texas.
"It's a beautiful day," he said. "It's a great day for remembrance."