With clouds hanging overhead to match the solemn occasion, several hundred veterans, active duty military and families of fallen soldiers, along with grateful civilians, gathered on Memorial Day afternoon at the Marietta National Cemetery.

Monday’s ceremony was the 77th annual observance hosted by the National Memorial Day Association of Georgia. The event is held each year among the headstones marking the final resting place for roughly 18,000 U.S. service members. Among them are soldiers who were killed in each American war.

Over the weekend, hundreds of volunteers and Boy Scouts worked to plant American flags next to each grave to honor their sacrifice.

Retired Brigadier General Tom Blackstock, who served in the U.S. Army for 38 years, reminded the crowd that was decked out in military uniforms and patterns of red, white and blue of the holiday’s significance.

“While many may think of this as the advent of summer, a time for pool parties and barbecues, to me — and to many of you out there — it’s a time to look back with gratitude to those fallen heroes of our country, whose ultimate sacrifice not only made it possible for us to live, but to prosper today in 2023,” he said.

Many in attendance Monday said the event is one that is always marked on their calendars.

U.S. Navy veteran Bill Beaudin, who served in Vietnam, said he’s been coming to the event for years and “wouldn’t miss it for the world.” He said he was pleased to see how many others also came out, too.

“It seems like the crowds are growing every year,” he said. “So I’m grateful for that, because people can’t forget.”

Bob Griggs, another U.S. Navy and Vietnam veteran, said this was at least the 12th ceremony he’d attended.

On Monday, Griggs was carrying his father’s World War II dog tag. He lost three high school friends in Vietnam, and Griggs said he likes to reflect and pay tribute to them by walking the grounds of the cemetery after the event.

“It’s not about us,” he said. “It’s about them.”

Gary Krajecki, a veteran from Chicago who served in the first Gulf War and now lives in the Atlanta area, attended for the first time on Monday. Krajecki found out about the ceremony at the last minute and brought his two children, saying it was important to him that they learn what separates Memorial Day from other U.S. holidays with patriotic overtones.

“People get it confused with Veterans Day,” he said. “This is all about the citizens who died for our country, not just the people who have served before.”

Retired Brigadier General Mark Gelhardt, the event’s keynote speaker, called on the crowd to teach others in their communities about those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

“I challenge each and every one of you to take today and be the best free American citizen you can be,” he said. “And tomorrow, do it again.”

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