HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- Residents of Madison County and neighboring communities gathered in the north central section of Huntsville's Maple Hill Cemetery Monday morning to honor and remember the Nation's men and women who have died while serving in the military, marking this year's Memorial Day ceremony.

Memorial Day originated as "Decoration Day" -- where flowers were placed on the graves of Soldiers lost during the Civil War -- was made an official federal holiday in 1971 to "Never Forget -- Honor Forever."

"Today is a sacred day to all Americans and especially to all war veterans," said John Wright, master of ceremonies and president of the Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army. "For it is on Memorial Day, America's collective consciousness demands that its citizens reconnect with their history and core values in honoring Americans who have died in our nation's wars.

"Each paid with their lives, the most precious price they could possibly pay, for the freedoms we enjoy today," Wright said.

"This is a day to get together with family and get together with friends, but it is a day made possible because of a sacrifice that others have made," Huntsville's Mayor Tommy Battle added.

"Since the Revolutionary War, nearly 1.2 million service members -- Soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen-- have made the ultimate sacrifice," Maj. Gen. Stephen Farmen, commander of the U.S. Army Security Assistance Command, said during his keynote address.
"And that's why this day is so important to all of us, to pay a well-deserved tribute to those brave Americans who ensured us the freedoms we now enjoy."

The crowd gathered at the event included family members of fallen heroes, veterans, active duty and citizens, both young and old.

"Today, we still honor those left behind, those who paid a very personal price for us and our nation, our Gold Star families and all survivors who have lost a family member or a friend," Farmen said. "We are humbled by your sacrifice, inspired by your resilience and grateful for your continued service to our communities."

Local organizations laid more than 35 wreaths during the ceremony in front of the Veterans Memorial to pay respect to the 1,200 fallen service members buried in Maple Hill Cemetery, dating back to the Civil War. In addition, Boy Scout Troop 400 and other volunteers placed American flags on those graves.

Farmen accompanied the children of Capt. Waid "Chip" Ramsey to place a wreath honoring northern Alabama's Gold Star families.

Ramsey, of the Army National Guard, was killed in August 2011 by enemy fire in Afghanistan. Prior to the ceremony, his family and many other fallen heroes' family members participated in the city's annual Cotton Row Run race and a finish line living memorial -- a display of 40 U.S. flags and the photos of 50 heroes we've lost in the local community, coordinated by Kerri Branson, Redstone Arsenal's Survivor Outreach Services representative.

Huntsville's Memorial Day ceremony, in its 11th year, was sponsored by the City of Huntsville, the North Alabama Veterans & Fraternal Organizations Coalition and AUSA. The ceremony included symbolic and patriotic musical selections performed by the Huntsville Concert Band, bugler World War II veteran retired Col. Mike Vaccaro, vocalist Bob Smith and piper Joe Ausfahl. The 1st Patriot Support Corps presented the colors and a rifle salute was conducted by the American Legion 237 Rifle Squad. The invocation and benediction were delivered by Rev. Errol Davis and Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar, respectively.

"It is our duty to ensure veterans are not lost to history -- not just those lost in battle, but those who have served bravely and are no longer with us," Farmen said.

"As we preserve and cherish their memories, we must also remember that more than 186,000 Soldiers are currently deployed to 140 different countries, all as willing as their forbearers to fight for and sacrifice to ensure the freedoms of our great nation and its people.

"It's what has always made America the beacon of hope and freedom that it is, the generations of brave and courageous warriors who dedicate themselves to the defense of the United States," Farmen said. "And that is why we have Memorial Day.

"So each of us, through our own actions, must keep faith with all those who have fought our wars by keeping their memory alive. Never forget, honor forever."