Hundreds gather at veterans’ cemetery

Growing up in Pomeroy, Iowa, it was tradition for Mary Jo Hughes and her three brothers and sisters to visit the town’s cemetery on Memorial Day, to decorate the graves and pay homage to those who had gone before them.

“It was just part of my childhood,” she said of the annual treks to the cemetery with her father, Donald LeJarne, a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Army in Europe.

Hughes has never lost her connection to the military. As a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Grand Junction, she’s at the bedside of men and women who are near death. She hears their stories of their time in the service. And it gives her a deeper appreciation of what their lives have meant for her.

That’s part of what brought the 50-year-old woman out for the first time Monday to a ceremony at Veterans Memorial Cemetery of Western Colorado, where she joined hundreds of others who touched their hand to their heart, saluted and shed a tear or two in reverence and remembrance.

“We can never forget,” Hughes said. “It’s important for us to continue to honor those who sacrificed for our freedom.”

Hughes also came to the cemetery with her husband, Michael, to support friend Mary Lou McCullah of Grand Junction. McCullah’s husband, James, was stationed in Korea and Okinawa during World War II. He died last year and is buried at the cemetery.

McCullah views Memorial Day as an opportunity not just to pay respects to deceased veterans, but those serving today.

“They have it rough,” she said.

With the U.S., Colorado and Prisoner of War-Missing in Action flags flying at half-staff, Dick Gigliotti, director of the Veterans Memorial Cemetery, told the crowd that society today is conditioned to believe it deserves every good thing in life. The reality, though, he said, is that people deserve things only after some selfless act or sacrifice.

Members of the armed forces, Gigliotti said, “deserve whatever honors we can bestow on them for their service and sacrifice.”

State Rep. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, said residents honor veterans by voting, regardless of the candidate or political party.

“They gave everything for us to be able to do that,” King said.

At the end of the ceremony, Dennis Bell gathered with dozens of other veterans among hundreds of miniature American flags in a circular patch of grass, shaking hands and clapping one another on the back. The 61-year-old who spent four years as a radioman with the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War has attended the Memorial Day ceremony more times than he can remember. Each year holds the same degree of significance, however.

He takes what the cemetery has to offer — a solemn bit of peace and quiet — and then shares himself with others. He spends time at the Western Slope Vietnam War Memorial Park in Fruita, chasing off skateboarders and others who he believes are intruding upon the purpose of the park. He’s a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, who form flag lines at military funerals. It’s because he remembers what it was like arriving back in the U.S. in the early 1970s and being spit on at the Los Angeles International Airport.

“I just said to myself, ‘I’m not going to let that happen to others,’ ” he said.


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