Dearly departed: Veterans, families come together for Memorial Day observation

Rey Armendarez and Hector Vargas, both war veterans, are seen with the ceremonial laying of a wreath at the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery on Monday, May 27, 2019 in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

MISSION  — Emma Diaz ran her hand across the surface of a gravestone where her late husband, a former Army serviceman, is buried and gave it a small kiss Monday morning.

Diaz said she comes to visit him every Sunday after church since he died almost three years ago.

Photo Gallery: Memorial Day 2019

The Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery and VFW Rio Grande Valley Memorial Post 8788, an organization made up of veterans from foreign wars, hosted a Memorial Day Ceremony to honor veterans who have died in service to the Armed Forces. The Texas General Land Office, a state agency that serves veterans in addition to other duties, also had a presence at the ceremony.

Memorial Day is a federal holiday held to commemorate and remember members of the Armed Forces who died in their service. Over a million military servicemen have been killed during war from the American Revolution until now. About 3,000 grave sites are located at the cemetery, with World War II, Korea and Vietnam veterans among the burials.

Participants wearing bandanas sporting the colors of the American flag, men in service uniforms and school children made up some of the faces of the crowd that attended the ceremony. Like Diaz, many had a personal connection to the holiday.

“Being Memorial Day, it’s something that we have to look at,” Diaz said. “All of (these) men that gave their lives for our freedom.”

With the flags of the five military branches behind them, organizers presented five items with symbolic meaning. A wreath represented eternity, a rose for love, salt for tears, lemon for bitterness and a candle for vigilance, an organizer said.

A giant American flag was also hoisted half staff on a pole behind the assembly area.

The concept of “freedom isn’t free” became a major theme for organizers.

“There is a significance behind the holiday, it’s about sacrifice and it’s about the liberties and freedoms that we have,” veteran and on-site representative George Rice said.

The ceremony also highlighted the price paid, the Mission native said.

Nearly twice the numbers of attendees were present when compared to last year, Rice said, adding he did not expect such high turnout.

Rice said the area is “probably one of the most patriotic regions of the country I’ve ever lived in.”

Former servicemen shared war stories, while others gathered in front of grave sites with yellow, white and pink flowers placed on the ground beneath them. “Semper Fi,” a phrase associated with the Marine Corps which essentially means “always faithful,” were some of the engravings on the gravesites.

For some, the day is a reminder of the hardships endured during wartime.

Army veteran Hector Vargas said he had to witness several men killed or wounded during his service. The McAllen native served as a machine gunner during the Vietnam War. He is also a part of VFW Rio Grande Valley Memorial Post 8788.

His service made him see violence and the pain of losing friends, and even for the enemy, many who had family waiting for them back home, he said.

“All those things come to my mind when this day (comes),” Vargas said. “The guys we left behind (and those) who never came back.”

He said that although servicemen make up a small fraction of society, they help take care of the rest of the population. Many veterans were mistreated after the war, but things have changed as they are more acknowledged, Vargas said.

Vargas said he plans to be buried in the cemetery, where a brother and several uncles are laid to rest.

Terry Allison places American flags at the grave sites of the Rio Grande Valley State Veterans Cemetery during a Memorial Day service for the fallen on Monday, May 27, 2019, in Mission. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

“The cemetery keeps us alive,” he said.

A 21-gun salute honored veterans, and attendees placed American flags by the gravesites after the ceremony ended. Families showed their support to fallen veterans by wearing camouflage  T-shirts with the words “all gave some, some gave all” written on them.

Brownsville native Raul “Kiko” Altamirano served as a radio operator in the US Army during the Vietnam War and comes to the cemetery twice a month to visit his brother, who also served in the military.

“It’s a day to remember them and to let them know that they’re not forgotten,” Altamirano said. “We think about them all the time, but this is a very special day for us to come together.”