Standing in the sun or seeking shade beneath trees and umbrellas, hundreds of San Antonians gathered at Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery Monday morning to remember those who sacrificed their lives in service of their country.
During the annual Memorial Day ceremony, more than 400 people – many veterans dressed in uniform – paid homage to loved ones, friends, and colleagues, at times shedding tears and offering prayers in between guest speakers and performances by the 323rd Army Band and the Alamo Metro Chorus of Sweet Adelines International.
Nearly 160,000 people are interred at the Fort Sam cemetery.
In the United States, the tradition of decorating soldiers’ graves dates back to before the American Civil War, but the practice became more ubiquitous and culturally significant after its end. Some trace its origin back to a Monday in late May 1868 when people at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia formally honored those who had died fighting on both sides. Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was declared a federal holiday in 1971.
“In the early days, people would decorate the graves of veterans with flags, a wreath and flowers, a tradition that continues today, 150 years later,” said retired U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Tom Earnest, who served as master of ceremonies Monday.
While many spend the holiday barbecuing or shopping with family and friends, Earnest said, on Memorial Day “all Americans should remember and reflect on those who died for our country and who now lie in peace.”
Roshanda Bost, assistant director of Fort Sam cemetery, read a letter from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).
“This weekend, Americans pause to pay tribute to the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom,” Cruz’s letter stated.
“Freedom is a precious gift, handed down from one generation to the next, but the greatest gift comes with great responsibility. America has been blessed with millions of men and women who courageously accepted the responsibility to serve our nation’s military. They gave their all to pass down freedom, which is the dream of so many.”
Retired Army Col. Sylvia Sanchez, past Veterans of Foreign Wars Texas state commander, delivered the ceremony’s keynote speech.
Sanchez, too, spoke about the origins of Memorial Day, explaining that people who paid respects to soldiers buried at Arlington National Cemetery did so as an act of reconciliation following the devastation wrought by the Civil War.
Placing flags on graves, Sanchez said, signifies lives lost but never forgotten. Individuals and organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America, volunteer time each Memorial Day weekend to place flags at the Fort Sam cemetery.
A San Antonio native, Sanchez said Memorial Day is an opportunity for Americans to not only honor service members who have died but to show patriotism and pride.
“From the patriots who fired the first shot of the American Revolution to the forces we have deployed around the world today, America has been blessed to have citizens who will serve, fight, and sometimes die for this country,” she said.
“It is not for money or medals that these people step forward. It is instead for patriotism, a love for this country, and for the values on which it was founded — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Members of the Special Forces Association, Chapter XV, presented five flags, each representing one branch of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Several ceremony attendees sang along as the 323rd Army Band – known as “Fort Sam’s Own” – played the songs recognizing the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. A couple of attendees shouted “Beat Army” at the end of the Navy service song.
Some visitors held back tears as members of the Fort Sam Houston Memorial Services Detachment provided a 21-gun salute during the playing of “Taps.”
After Monday’s official ceremony ended, attendees shared personal ways of honoring family and friends who have served in the military.
A few attendees were dressed in traditional Native American attire. Renee Littlehawk of the Pine Ridge reservation, and Louis Blackbear and Steve Standing Buffalo, both Apaches, performed a traditional drum service for fellow Native Americans buried at Fort Sam cemetery.
Littlehawk, a retired Marine, said the Memorial Day service evokes honor and sadness for friends who have died.
“It doesn’t matter what branch we serve, we honor ourselves this way, and we respect all other people who served,” he said. “This is why we’re here – to honor them and to thank them.”