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Memorial Day 2019: A somber celebration for those who served

Flags, flowers and other mementos adorn headstones in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, May 27, 2018. (U.S. Army photo by Elizabeth Fraser)

And a three-day weekend.

But for those who served in the armed forces, the day represents far more. For them, it’s a somber celebration marked by head stones, American flags and personal reflection.

Since 1896, the holiday — originally dubbed Decoration Day — has been marked by placing flowers on the graves of war dead. Today, that tradition continues with American flags.

The visual markers are powerful in their own right. But these active service members and veterans explain what the day really means to them.

Marjorie Hernandez

“Because I’ve been deployed, I know that someone is there,” says Chief Warrant Officer 4 Marjorie Hernandez of Pompano. “It’s easy to forget when we’re here in the comfort of our homes.”

For Hernandez, Memorial Day is a reminder of the men and women who are currently serving overseas. Originally from Ecuador, she came to the United States at age 14 and looked at Memorial Day as just another American holiday. Then she became a U.S. citizen and joined the military right after high school.

After 20 years of service, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Navy reservist developed a new understanding of the holiday.

“In our country where we have so many liberties and we take so much for granted,” she says. “It’s easy to forget those that are serving and to think about what they’re doing and the sacrifice, not just them, but that their families are making while they are deployed.”

Joe Rodriguez

Joe Rodriguez of Fort Lauderdale admits to enjoying a few hamburgers and hot dogs on Memorial Day.

But he also takes time to remember and honor his uncle, Medal of Honor recipient Army Private Miguel Armando Vera.

While serving In Korea in 1952, Vera was being treated for a battle wound while his comrades were attacking enemy positions.

According to his citation, Vera left the aid station where he was getting treatment to join the fight.

When a retreat was ordered, Vera stayed behind, manning a machine gun to cover his fellow soldiers. They returned the next day to find Vera dead at his post, his citation states.

“He never unmanned the machine gun. That’s my hero,” Rodriguez says.

Despite Vera’s death in action, Rodriguez felt drawn to enlist and he joined the Marine Corps when he turned 17.

He always looked up to his uncle and admired his patriotism, but never fully understood it until he joined the Marines.

“One day he showed me a picture. He said ‘come here, I want to show you my prized possession’ and he brings out a picture of the American flag with the Puerto Rican flag flying behind it and it was beautiful,” he says. “But it wasn’t until after I graduated from the Marine Corps that I understood what he meant by the flag being beautiful.”

Carl Arfa

Carl Arfa was behind a bazooka during World War II’s Battle of the Bulge, where two of his comrades were killed.

So his respect for the American flag is unique.

Arfa always flies the Stars and Stripes on his mailbox in Boca Raton and wishes that more people would do the same, especially on such a somber holiday as Memorial Day.

“I think that people should honor this day by flying our flag because soldiers died under this flag, were buried under this flag and people should honor this flag,” he says.

The 94-year-old remembers listening to the radio when Pearl Harbor was bombed on Dec. 7, 1941, and he wanted to do his part. He enlisted in the U.S. Army right after graduation from high school.

His accuracy behind the bazooka would serve him well during the Battle of the Bulge, where he destroyed a German machine gun nest and was later awarded the Bronze Star. He often thinks of the friends who didn’t make it through the fight.

“I think of them every Veterans Day and every day of my life because I’m living a happy life because of their effort,” he said. “You have no better friend than the guy that served next to you and dodged the bullets.”

Briza Reyes

Briza Reyes got a taste of military service through the Junior ROTC program at Deerfield Beach High School, where she’s graduating this year.

She says she has always admired the respect shown to veterans for their service.

“I admired that they were someone different and that’s what I really liked about it because not everyone can be in the military, not everyone is made for it,” she says. “Not everyone has the mindset and the stamina to handle that kind of stress and responsibility and I wanted that challenge.”

Reyes has already enlisted in the U.S. Army and will be the first person in her family to earn a high school diploma as well as serve in the military.

Since enlisting, Reyes says she has become much more aware of the significance of Memorial Day.

“It’s a lot to think about because so many lives have been lost to fight for our country, our freedom,” she says. “This is a date to sit here and remember them. It makes you thankful for what you have.”

Reyes will head to boot camp in July.

Kerby St. Preux

Kerby St. Preux will be sharing his thoughts on Memorial Day in front of an audience.

“It’s a day of remembering those and hold dear those who put it all on the line. Who fought to protect and uphold our liberties, our rights, and our freedoms,” St. Preux says.

The freshman cadet in the Junior ROTC program at Deerfield Beach High will participate in the a commemorative ceremony at the Butler House.

St. Preux hasn’t decided whether he’ll join the military, but is learning about service from more experienced cadets like Reyes.

Gwen Wright

Gwen Wright is an Air Force veteran.

But her reverence for Memorial Day goes beyond her experiences in the service.

Wright is also a representative at the South Florida National Cemetery in Lake Worth, final resting place for veterans and their family members.

Wright, who lives in Lake Worth, helps guide families through the process of honoring and burying their loved ones.

“I feel a connection to them on every single service,” she says. “I want to let them know I understand what they’re feeling. My parents are interred here so I feel even more of a connection having my parents here and just being a veteran myself.”

Jonathan Follmar

Cemetery caretaker Jonathan Follmar describes an immense respect that he and his fellow staff members have for the cemetery and the people buried there. The Army veteran says that he is proud to be the final person to say goodbye to veterans before they are laid to rest.

“We know these individuals, we have a sense of what they’ve done and what they’ve gone through and that respect is there for what they’ve done. Whether it’s a private with six months in or whether it’s a two star [general], they all get treated the same,” he says.

Abiud Montes

Master Gunnery Sergeant Abiud Montes of Plantation began his military career at age 19.

Now, 30 years later, he remains grateful to those who have served before him.

When he joined the Marine Corps reserve in 1989, Montes didn’t expect to be deployed — or be part of a war. But less than a year after graduating from boot camp, he was activated and served as an anti-tank missileman during Operation Desert Storm.

While serving in the Middle East, Abiud recalls meeting a young boy whose words have stuck with him ever since. He often tells the story when giving talks as a motivational speaker.

“We came into Kuwait City and I remember a kid about 14-years-old; he held his hand up in the air and he looked at me and he said ‘America is number one’ and I’m thinking this young boy is telling me my country is number one,” Montes says. “But what that young kid was talking to us about was a thing called freedom. Freedom isn’t free. It was one young man or young woman that gave their life for this country (so) that we may have the freedom of today and that young boy taught me about freedom just by saying ‘America’s number one.”

The encounter helped shape his appreciation of Memorial Day.

“It’s not about barbeques, a day off from work, a day off from school, hot dogs, hamburgers” Montes says. “It’s to reflect, to remember and to honor those men and women who served.”


© 2019 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.