Memorial Day: Special ways to honor and remember

Marine veteran Maurice Hurst pays respects after placing an American flag near a headstone at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton during Memorial Day in 2021. (AJC FILE)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@aj

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Marine veteran Maurice Hurst pays respects after placing an American flag near a headstone at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton during Memorial Day in 2021. (AJC FILE)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@aj

‘They signed up to give everything — up to, and including their lives.’

On Monday, more than 10,000 spectators are expected to line the streets of Dacula, home to one of the largest Memorial Day parades in the state. The parade will feature marching bands, horses, and antique cars. It will also be woven with 305 people walking slowly, quietly, and somberly, carrying photographs of fallen soldiers from Georgia.

Among those carrying signs is Jiffy Helton, whose son, Joseph, died Sept. 8, 2009, serving during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Air Force Academy graduate 1st Lt. Joseph Helton Jr.,24, died near Baghdad of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked his vehicle.

Joseph Helton of Monroe admired his family’s service — his parents, grandparents and three uncles all had been in the armed forces. His mom remembers her son doodling battleships and fighter jets as a child. She said her only son was humble and had a “quiet, commanding presence.”

“When I am walking (in the parade), it’s emotional,” said Helton who has participated for several years and who will be joined this year by family and friends. “It’s to help people be made aware of the sacrifices out there. Some people don’t think about it. But to see all of the faces. That’s different than names and numbers. It’s a reality check.”

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1LT Joseph D. Helton Jr., 24, of Monroe, was killed when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Credit: Contributed (

1LT Joseph D. Helton Jr., 24, of Monroe, was killed when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Credit: Contributed (

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1LT Joseph D. Helton Jr., 24, of Monroe, was killed when enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Credit: Contributed (

Credit: Contributed (

Steve Durling, founder of the non-profit Fallen Heroes of Georgia, organizes volunteers holding the 18-by-24 inches placards in the Dacula parade. Each sign includes the service member’s name, branch of the military, hometown, age, and date of death.

Durling, a Hall County firefighter, said “For me, it’s just for a moment, for people to have a moment to cry, to pray, to get them out of their own little bubble, and have this understanding about a greater sacrifice.”

Also carrying a sign in the parade this year is Lisa Jenkins of Columbus who is the president of the Georgia Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers. While her son didn’t die in combat, she understands the pain of losing a young person serving in the military who didn’t return home. Her middle son, Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III, 24, joined the Army in October 2012 and died on July 6, 2015, after his motorcycle crashed in a tunnel on the Portage Glacier Highway in Alaska where he was stationed.

ExploreSpc. Ryan C. King’s family will gather in his memory at Georgia National Cemetery
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Lisa Jenkins, of Columbus, president of the Georgia Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, is here with her son Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III and husband Fredrick Jenkins Jr.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

Lisa Jenkins, of Columbus, president of the Georgia Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, is here with her son Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III and husband Fredrick Jenkins Jr.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

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Lisa Jenkins, of Columbus, president of the Georgia Chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, is here with her son Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III and husband Fredrick Jenkins Jr.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

Jenkins is mother to six children – all of whom are serving or have served in the U.S. Army. Her husband, Fredrick Jenkins Jr., was injured while in active duty in Operation Freedom in Iraq, and is medically retired.

After her son died, Jenkins planted a sycamore tree in the backyard. “The tree is symbolic, and a symbol of his life. He had no children. The branches represent all of the lives he touched,” said Jenkins who will be joined by her husband for the parade.

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“He was the kindest, most gentle person,” said Lisa Jenkins, about her son, Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III. Upon completion of Advanced Individual Training in Fort Gordon, Fred Jenkins attended Airborne School in Fort Benning Georgia and graduated in September 2012. He reported to Alaska on October 8, 2012.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

“He was the kindest, most gentle person,” said Lisa Jenkins, about her son, Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III. 
Upon completion of Advanced Individual Training in Fort Gordon, Fred Jenkins attended Airborne School in Fort Benning Georgia and graduated in September 2012. He reported to Alaska on October 8, 2012.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

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“He was the kindest, most gentle person,” said Lisa Jenkins, about her son, Spc. Fredrick “Fred” Jenkins III. Upon completion of Advanced Individual Training in Fort Gordon, Fred Jenkins attended Airborne School in Fort Benning Georgia and graduated in September 2012. He reported to Alaska on October 8, 2012.

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

Credit: Contributed (Custom Credit

Across the state, Georgians will observe this holiday by visiting cemeteries, holding family gatherings, and participating in parades. Some will read treasured letters, and make special meals in memory of a loved one.

While considered by many as the unofficial start of summer, the meaning of Memorial Day is deeper, more somber, and meant to honor the men and women who died while serving in the military. Here’s more stories of how people will mark the day.

“A genuine brother”

On Memorial Day, Johnny Miller plans to be in church to honor his friend Herbert Hoover Gray.

Miller was there when Gray, a friendly 21-year-old, died on Nov. 20, 1967. There are conflicting reports on how he died but it was in battle as U.S. troops fought the North Vietnamese Army to capture Hill 875 in Kontum Province, South Vietnam.

The two met in Vietnam and became fast friends, bonding over their Georgia roots, Miller from Butler and Gray from Jones County.

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Herbert Hoover Gray, of Jones County, Ga., died in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 21.

Credit: Family

Herbert Hoover Gray, of Jones County, Ga., died in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 21.

Credit: Family

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Herbert Hoover Gray, of Jones County, Ga., died in Vietnam in 1967 at the age of 21.

Credit: Family

Credit: Family

“He was a lot of fun and just the best soldier,” said Miller. “He was a genuine brother. I tell you he really looked out for me and I looked out for him. Over there you had to have somebody cover your back at all times.”

The two used to talk about what they would do when they went " back to the world.”

In one pitched battle, Miller was wounded. He took shelter behind a log and lay on the ground to help stop the bleeding. Gray was sitting under a tree, not far from his friend.

Accounts vary, but according to Miller a U.S. plane dropped a bomb in or near the perimeter - in an incident of friendly fire .

He called out to Gray, who didn’t answer.

Gray was dead, still sitting upright, said Miller.

“I still think about him,” said Miller. “It shouldn’t have happened that way.”

There’s a slight time discrepancy that could be due to when his body was discovered or recovered.

Gray’s sister, Shirley Ann Gray-Drewry, who lives in New Jersey, said her family was told that her brother was missing in action, then killed in action.

She was 15 when he died.

He was a big believer in education and an inspiration, she said. “He was an idol to me and I really loved him and respected him,” she said.

Gray’s cousin, Eddie Gray still breaks down when he talks about his cousin.

According to his obituary in the Jones County News private first class Gray was killed in action Nov. 20, 1967, by small arms fire.

ExploreFrom 2018: Why — and when — do we celebrate Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

“He was such an outgoing person, really energetic,” said Eddie Gray, a retiree who lives in Gray, Ga. and served in Vietnam as did two of his brothers.

On Memorial Day, as he does every year, Eddie Gray will place an American flag on his cousin’s gravesite in the family cemetery.

He will remember his cousin who, in high school, once performed a dance routine to “Land of 1,000 Dances” by Wilson Pickett, which drew a standing ovation.

Today Gray is honored on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Panel 30e, Line 42.

Letters as a child

As a fifth-grader in the 1960s, Suzy Crowe wrote letters to soldiers in Vietnam every single week as part of her school work.

Her teacher at North Roswell Elementary School was Llenell Sanderson, who was a Navy medical corps enlistee at the beginning of World War II.

“I remember saying to her, ‘I don’t know what to write,’” said Crowe. “And she would say, ‘tell them about what’s going on in your life, your interests, your favorite color. Anything. It’s all OK. They need the human contact.’”

So week after week, Crowe’s letters became part of a regular stack of letters Mrs. Sanderson received and made sure they crossed the miles to Vietnam. Sometimes, the students heard back.

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As a fifth-grader in the 1960s, Suzy Crowe wrote letters to soldiers in Vietnam every single week as part of her school work. Today, she says, “One of the things I think about on Memorial Day is there are people willing to go to try to keep us safe.”

Credit: Contributed (C

As a fifth-grader in the 1960s, Suzy Crowe wrote letters to soldiers in Vietnam every single week as part of her school work. Today, she says, “One of the things I think about on Memorial Day is there are people willing to go to try to keep us safe.”

Credit: Contributed (C

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As a fifth-grader in the 1960s, Suzy Crowe wrote letters to soldiers in Vietnam every single week as part of her school work. Today, she says, “One of the things I think about on Memorial Day is there are people willing to go to try to keep us safe.”

Credit: Contributed (C

Credit: Contributed (C

It not only connected Crowe to soldiers thousands of miles away, but it taught her valuable lessons about life, service, and sacrifice that she carries with her to this day.

(Sidenote: Mrs. Sanderson, a decades-long volunteer with the American Legion who died in 2006, was known for writing to troops herself – sometimes as many as five a day. In a 1991 feature in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about Mrs. Sanderson, she said she felt the letters were as important to the troops as a hot meal and warm clothes. Sanderson recalled a touching letter from a soldier in the desert who wrote to her about the stars at night, ending his letter by saying, ‘Surely they’re from God’s jewelry box.’)

Crowe, now 62, lives in Alpharetta and is a retired math and computer science teacher at Milton High School. She’s the Roswell Garden Club’s project chair for a Blue Star and Gold Star Memorial markers project for the grounds of Roswell City Hall.

ExploreWhat to expect on Georgia's roads this Memorial Day

The Blue Star Program honors men and women who serve in the United States Armed Services. The Gold Star Memorial Marker honors the families who lost loved ones in service.

“One of the things I think about on Memorial Day is there are people willing to go to try to keep us safe. I just think about what a gift to all of us that people will do this and that’s part of what allows us to live our everyday lives like we do because people are willing to serve and protect and build and care for our country,” she said.

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Ann Poche, right, and Jaye McKinney-Rheal, left, salute the headstones where they placed an American flag at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on Memorial Day in 2021. (AJC FILE)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Ann Poche, right, and Jaye McKinney-Rheal, left, salute the headstones where they placed an American flag at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on Memorial Day in 2021.  (AJC FILE)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

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Ann Poche, right, and Jaye McKinney-Rheal, left, salute the headstones where they placed an American flag at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton on Memorial Day in 2021. (AJC FILE)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer/Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

A salute, a prayer and a flag at Georgia National Cemetery in Canton

For the past several years, on the Saturday before Memorial Day, Russ Seltenright helps lead a large group of volunteers who will take part in an annual tradition of placing more than 25,000 American flags – one flag in front of every service member’s gravestone – at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.

He and other volunteers carefully follow proper procedure and etiquette: Each flag is placed one foot back and center from the tombstone. Volunteers say the name of the soldier. They salute or put their hands over the hearts, and say a prayer.

The ceremony includes a rifle salute and a fly-over of vintage warbird aircraft.

ExploreHow the AJC covered the end of WWI (the first Veterans Day)

Seltenright was a Navy pilot from 1971-1979, and in the Navy Reserves until 1995. He’s also a retired airline pilot.

Memorial Day is an especially important holiday, said Seltenright, chairman of the Georgia National Cemetery Advisory Council, an all volunteer organization that honors service members and their families with projects and events throughout the year at the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton.

“I think about these veterans, that when they signed up they signed up to give everything – up to, and including their lives. They did this so the rest of us could live in peace and harmony.”