Nearly 600 people attended a Memorial Day ceremony at Danville's Oak Hill Park to commemorate San Ramon Valley veterans who lost their lives in the line of duty.
Organized by the Vietnam Veterans of Diablo Valley (VNDV) and the All Wars Memorial Foundation, the 21st annual observance is one of the few traditional ceremonies in the Bay Area and featured the Danville Community Band as well as a color guard and fly-over by a P-51 Mustang and C-5 Galaxy.
"It's not only enjoyable to do, but it's a meaningful thing to do and the right thing to do," said John Reese, director of public relations for VNDV.
Held during the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam war, the two-hour program paid tribute to 11 pre-September 11, 2001 veterans from the area who died this year as well as the 17 Armed Forces members from Livermore to Concord and Lafayette who died after the September 11th attacks.
"The meaning of Memorial Day is to rededicate ourselves to freedom's cause," Ret. Major Gen. Ronald Lowe said to the crowd during his tribute speech. "Our nation is free because of veterans like these who volunteered to face our adversaries abroad so we would not have to face them here."
In addition to thanking living war veterans from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the service gave special recognition to Gold Star families such as the Mooldyks who lost a member of their family while they were on active duty. Families were asked to rise for recognition while the band played "Amazing Grace."
While Master of Ceremonies and All Wars Memorial President Bill Picton lauded the Sentinels of Freedom and other local organizations for their work with veterans, the oft-somber ceremony included a symbolic nod to prisoners of war and those missing in action as well as a blessing by VNDV Treasurer Gary Estrella that urged residents to never forget the importance of service.
"If older soldiers do not remember, then the younger generation will forget because their freedom cost them nothing," Estrella said. "Let god give us the strength to defend our military heroes who gave up their tomorrows so we could have ours."
While Estrella's invocation received a hearty round of applause, the keynote speaker received a standing ovation. Lt. Richard T. Burress, a Marine Corps veteran who fought during the Battle of Iwo Jima, spent much of his speech discussing advice he offered to young Marines while at Camp Pendleton in April.
"I've got good news and bad news. The bad news is in 70 years, you're going to look like me. The good news is you're about to formulate memories and make friends that will last a lifetime," Burress told the crowd. "More important, you're going to be doing something for your country that each and every person will appreciate and honor you forâ€¦you will be leaders."
But Burress' strength of conviction wasn't always so strong. While fighting in Iwo Jima, a comrade named Sanginmi charged out of the troop's shell hole toward the enemy. The "better Marine" was hit and fell back into the trench where he died.
"Right then and there I pledged that I would be a leader. It would be my job to charge forward and not wait for someone else to do that and I think that's how everyone feels who served," Burress said.
Burress concluded his keynote speech by quoting Civil War veteran Joshua Chamberlain, who fought in the battle at Little Round Top which helped cement the Union's victory at Gettysburg.
"Service should be our theme, not death. Men reach their complete developmentâ€¦through membership and participation in life's fullest scope," Burress read.
The theme of service was also carried out by members of Mount Diablo Hog, who brought 42 motorcycles to the ceremony and several American flags. The group takes part in Warriors' Watch Riders, a troop support organization that provides motorcycle escorts for military units or individuals returning from war or deploying.
"They do Operation Welcome Home because Vietnam vets didn't have a welcome home," Alamo Municipal Advisory Council member Steve Mick said of Diablo Hog. "We want to make sure that never happens again."
Several members of local government also attended the observance, including a representative from Congressman Jerry McNerney's (D-Pleasanton) office, San Ramon Mayor Abram Wilson, Councilmember Newell Arnerich as well as Councilmember and Air Force veteran Mike Doyle. Mayor Karen Stepper spoke during the welcoming comments where she thanked veterans and highlighted the veteran's memorial building as a place that would preserve the stories of those who served.
"Each of us has a responsibility to give back to this country. To many of you, that's the gift of freedom you have given all of us," she said. "Many of you don't know that your neighbor has served. We are here today to thank them with the same silence in which they served."
The Memorial Day ceremony concluded with a 21 rifle salute next to the All Wars Memorial as well as a rising of the flag from half mast and echo taps by Lorie McGraw, a retired member of the San Francisco Symphony and first chair trumpeter.