Memorial ceremony honors fallen warriors, families

Stacy Fisher, Staff Writer

The Chester Progressive of Chester, California

More than 100 people attended the Memorial Day ceremony at Chester Cemetery on May 25 to remember those who had given their lives defending our country.

The American Legion and Blue Star Moms hosted the event.

Maureen Luther, a Chester resident for five years, said this was her second year attending the somber occasion.

"My nephew served eight years in the Army," she said, "including 18 months in Afghanistan."

Her son is one of the Boy Scouts who, together with other Troop 36 Scouts, assisted in placing dozens of flags around the grave markers and throughout the cemetery to mark the occasion.

"I'm here to teach my kids about who it is that's protecting our freedoms," Luther said.

Ramona Roper, 89, lives in Chester. She said that her first husband, Frank Denna, had been a track star before serving in Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.

"He enlisted and fought in one of the last battles of World War II," she recalled. "He was seriously crippled from his injuries and spent a total of 16 years in the hospital being treated for his wounds."

Roper's second husband, Ken Roper, also served in the Navy and was wounded aboard ship.

"I had two wonderful men in my life who fought for our country. I will honor them until the day that I die," she said.

The ceremony began with an invocation by Gregg Scott, chaplain for the American Legion Post 644.

Speaking from the podium, he said, "We honor the memory of those who gave their lives in the service of our country.

"Bless their families with the knowledge that the service and sacrifice of their loved ones were not in vain."

Also in attendance was the president of the local chapter of the Feather River Blue Star Moms, Toni Eckert, who introduced Gold Star mother Mary Lay, whose son died in Vietnam in 1969.

The Blue Star Moms is a national organization for mothers who have children presently serving in the military, while Gold Star moms have a child who died while on active duty.

Eckert, a military wife with a son in the Navy, said the Gold Star Moms is an organization that was started during World War I to provide a society for mothers to honor their fallen sons and daughters.

She said that while we honor our Gold Star moms, and our Gold Star wives, "that isn't quite why the organization came about," Eckert explained. "It is a way to bring those wonderful moms together, not just to mourn, but so they may honor their sons and daughters by coming together in a common goal of helping our soldiers, many of whom are still fighting, our wounded coming home and our veterans."

Gold Star mother Mary Lay, presented with a gold star in 2010, was then invited by Eckert to place a wreath "in honor of every mother whose son or daughter has laid down their life in the ultimate sacrifice for their country."

Members of Boys Scouts of America Troop 36 handed a folded American flag to Lay during the ceremony to respect her sacrifice in the loss of her son in battle.

Eckert shared that she believed there are a lot of mothers in town who have lost loved ones in military action who aren't familiar with Gold Star Moms, and that she hoped they might join the organization.

Mindy Nicholson sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" as those in attendance stood at attention, a few quietly accompanying her.

Army National Guard and state military reservist Command Sgt. Major David

Eckert introduced keynote speaker Col. Michael L. Herman, a highly decorated 40-year veteran who spent 20 years in the California National Guard.

Herman received his commission at West Point, Eckert said, and spent six years in Germany patrolling the German and Czech borders before being reassigned to California.

Although Herman retired from federal service in 2009, he continues to serve as a deputy Army commander for the California State Military Reserve.

"I want to thank all of you for being here today," Herman began. "I love small-town celebrations." He said he could picture small towns all over the country gathering together in cemeteries or other appropriate venues to remember the real reason for Memorial Day.

He said he's traveled to 50 countries around the world, and was stationed in half a dozen, "so I've had plenty of opportunity to see how a lot of the rest of the world lives. And I've got a pretty good basis for comparison when I tell you we live in a great country."

Even more, "it is the people like yourselves who came out today to... praise those who came before us and have given their all" for our freedoms, he said.

Over the past 13 years alone, Herman said almost 40,000 California National Guard men and women have deployed to various hot zones throughout the world: Kosovo, Sinai, Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, among many other places.

"That's especially impressive when one realizes we only have about 20,000 members in the National Guard at any given time here in California. So we deployed the equivalent of our entire force twice."

He noted that out of those 40,000 who served, 29 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice.

"Our military men and women are emblematic of why our country is great. It is by their spirit that makes me proud to say I love this country," he said.

"Of course a National Guard unit is not just made up of those who are deployed, but those who remain behind, from soldiers who supported us from the rear, to the families who supported us as well. It's a truism that we couldn't do this job without our families."

He said the reason families were there was to honor the fallen — the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, coast guardsmen, rich or poor, urban or rural, representing all races, colors and creeds — is that "all of them found something about this country that they loved enough that they were willing to stand up and say, 'Let it be me: I will go and defend my country, even at the risk of my life.'"

Without their sacrifices, he added, "our country might have been just another noble experiment consigned to the dustbin of history."

After Herman finished his speech, Don Christenson, who moved to the community of Chester with his wife seven weeks previously, played taps on the French horn, eliciting a few tears from a number of audience members.

Pastor Smokey Denna, of the Assembly of God Church of Westwood, took the podium to conclude the ceremony.

He recalled as a young man hearing that "many men died so I would be free...I recognized early on in life that freedom wasn't free. It's good for us to remember that, when we look around the cemetery knowing over 300 veterans are buried here."

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