As rows of more than 1,000 American flags flapped in the breeze, hundreds gathered at Sunset Memorial Gardens in Richland on Memorial Day to pay their respects to fallen heroes.
The crowd at the 43rd annual service listened to an inspiring speech from a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, watched as doves were released during a rendition of God Bless America and stood for a 21-gun salute to honor the dead.
Lt. Col. David Niesen, who served in Iraq and was awarded the Bronze Star, spoke to the crowd about using the day as a time to remember not only those who have died, but everyone who has served to protect the country.
“They did their duty. They gave their all. And they will not be forgotten,” Niesen said.
While families were scattered throughout the cemetery visiting loved ones, the large crowd filled seats and a grassy hill overlooking a pond for the hour-long ceremony. Veterans from nearly every branch of the military were present.
Niesen spoke just yards from where his wife, a former chief warrant officer in the Army Reserves, was buried in December after a long battle with breast cancer. The couple used to attend Memorial Day services together and Niesen said his wife’s death influenced the speech he gave Monday.
He likened the decision to serve to writing a blank check to the United States of America, saying the commitment could ultimately cost a person their life.
The choice those in the military make to put their lives on the line for complete strangers is hard for many to understand and goes noticed by people across the nation, Niesen said.
“When you sign up to be a service member in the military you are making a commitment to the country that you will do your duty and do whatever is asked of you,” Niesen told the Herald. “That may cost you your life. And so it is a blank check, you don’t know when it will be cashed.”
Niesen asked the crowd to continue to support the commitment veterans and current military have to ensuring freedom in America. He said military protection is still needed today to protect Americans from foreign threats from terrorist groups like the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
However, Niesen says the armed forces have done well protecting America and the threats may not visible to some on the home front.
“Those things are happening. There are aggressive leaders, insurgent groups and terrorists out there, and we need to continue to serve and do our duty to secure the country.”
Also participating in the the ceremony was the National Guard, Young Marines, Civil Air Patrol, Naval Sea Cadets and Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7952.