Sacrifice: Memorial Day ceremony held at Memorial Park
“We come not to mourn our dead soldiers, but to praise them.”
American Legion Cmdr. Claude Hessel began this year’s Memorial Day tribute at Memorial Park in Grass Valley by quoting Civil War hero Francis Walker, kicking off a remembrance of America’s fallen soldiers that was attended by hundreds of veterans and their families.
Monday’s tribute featured remarks from Hessel, as well as speeches from retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Orlo Steele and Supervisor Dan Miller, who is an army veteran himself. Songs honoring the armed forces were performed, including “If You’re Reading This,” a ballad that acts as a letter written by a fallen soldier to his family, and traditional anthems such as “God Bless the U.S.A.” and “Amazing Grace,” the latter of which was performed on the bagpipes. A three-gun salute was also carried out before the event concluded, a custom traditionally performed at military funerals.
Organizers said that the event’s significance to the area’s veterans was even greater than normal this year, as the legion was unable to hold the Memorial Day tribute in 2020 due to concerns about COVID-19.
“This is the first time in a while we veterans have been back together in a big crowd, and it’s great,” Hessel said.
Mike Hauser, a Vietnam War veteran who attended the event and helped photograph the ceremony, said that while 2020 was an especially difficult year, Monday’s tribute was not only a commemoration of the war dead, but also a celebration of the community’s ability to push through the challenges of the pandemic together.
“COVID has been difficult on everybody. I think to a veteran, what the public went through is basically what veterans went through in war. Having to sacrifice normalcy in order to accomplish a goal, that’s what the country had to do this past year,” Hauser said.
‘PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN’
Against the backdrop of the park’s memorial wall, which is engraved with the names of hundreds of fallen soldiers dating back to World War I, Miller and Steele spoke of the history and significance of Memorial Day itself, but also of men they had served with who had displayed exceptional valor during the horrors of war.
“Today I am proud to be an American,“ Miller said as he began his remarks. He spoke of the historical responsibility adopted by America in helping safeguard human rights across the globe. Miller mentioned America’s war for independence from Great Britain, and noted the crucial role that the U.S. played in 20th century conflicts such as World War I, World War II, and the Korean War.
“The American soldier has always stood in the gap of tyranny, preventing evil nations from taking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from others,” Miller said.
In a personal note, the county supervisor mentioned a classmate of his from his time at Nevada Union High School, Lance Cpl. Gary Miller (no relation), who had perished in combat in Vietnam.
Miller dwelt on his memory of that classmate and other friends of his who had died in Vietnam, emphasizing the debt he feels he owes to his fallen comrades.
“I am grateful today because over 55,000 Americans died as a sacrifice for my future,” Miller said of America’s Vietnam war dead.
Steele also invoked the rich heritage of the armed forces, discussing the first Memorial Day ceremony ever, which was held in Waterloo, New York, in 1866, and was called “Decoration Day” at the time of the holiday’s inception. Memorial Day itself did not become an official federal holiday until 1971.
Like Miller, Steele recalled the heroism of those who he served with. Steele spoke about his time serving alongside Lt. Col. Charlie Lee Harrison, who is famous for having been only the second marine to be captured twice in combat — once during Harrison’s service during World War II, where he was captured by the Japanese and imprisoned for almost four years, and then again in the Korean War, where Harrison was captured before escaping along with a group of fellow prisoners of war. Harrison, who died in 2015, received a purple heart and a prisoner of war medal for his time in service.
“His dedication and heroism stood above the rest,” Steele said, recalling Harrison’s unbreakable spirit and remarkable dedication to the Marine Corps even after his experiences as a POW.
Steele concluded by noting the support for the veteran community in Grass Valley, emphasizing the significance of the memorial wall in honoring the community’s own fallen service members.
“When it comes to a cemetery, nothing in my view is as impressive as our cemetery here in Memorial Park,” he said.
The event concluded around noon, and a luncheon was put on by the legion for event attendees following the ceremony, taking place at the Grass Valley Veterans Memorial Building on South Auburn Street.
Kenneth Mellel, a veteran who served in the naval reserves and as a sergeant in the Army in Panama, said that the event’s recognition of service members was deeply significant to him and other veterans in the community.
“My parents are gone, my kids aren’t around here, so there’s no recognition for me for those years, but it’s good to remember here,” he said.
“My reaction to this is very personal. I’m sure every one of these men and women of service here would say ’thank you’ from the heart.”
The tribute was hosted by the American Legion Post 130, and was put on with assistance from organizations including Welcome Home Vets, Daughters of the American Revolution, Legion Auxiliary, and several other veteran groups. Veterans from all branches of the military were present.
Songs at the ceremony were performed by Barbra Conner and Terry Allwein, and Donna Mattson sang the “Medley of Service Songs” a capella, featuring the official service anthem of each military branch.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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