A small crowd of family, friends, veterans and government officials gathered at the Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock on Monday for the laying of a wreath to honor the more than 8,100 veterans who have been interred there since it was originally dedicated in 2001.
At the 239-acre cemetery, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Steven Veazey observed that "the sweetness of enduring freedom has always been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice."
He then acknowledged a lone, black folding chair that sat in front of the podium he spoke at. The top of the chair bore the logo for prisoners of war and soldiers who were missing in action.
"We are compelled to never forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others who have endured and may still be enduring the agonies of pain, deprivation and imprisonment," Veazey said. "The empty chair to the front of the podium is to recognize our POWs and our MIAs that are unable to be with us today. Today, I would like you to join us in remembering them and also those who lay at rest here who have no one to claim them."
For the next 11 minutes, Veazey recited the names and biographies of 12 Arkansas veterans who had died and been buried at the cemetery in the last three years but did not have a next of kin to claim them at the time of their deaths.
Their service periods ranged from World War II to the Iraq War, which marks its 20th anniversary this year.
The unclaimed veterans included:
Airman James Lamar Thomas, 1955-2021, Vietnam War.
Pvt. Larry Gene West, 1952-2021, Vietnam War.
Sgt. James Frank Harris, 1959-2021, Iraq War.
Sgt. Johnie Wells, Jr., 1944-2022, Vietnam War.
Pvt. Nathan Eddie Gray, 1951-2022, Vietnam War.
Pfc. Albert B. Dorsey, 1924-2022, World War II.
Capt. Jay Wallace Cassady, 1960-2022, Gulf War.
Pvt. Dave Shelton, 1943-2023, Vietnam War.
Seaman John Edward Hickey, 1948-2022, Vietnam War.
Spc. Trent Hila Wilson, 1947-2023, Vietnam War.
Lance Cpl. Danny Lee Lind, 1948-2022, Vietnam War.
Sgt. 1st Class Martin Ray Brown, 1937-2023, Vietnam War
After reciting each person's biography, Veazey repeated their names and said, "We honor you."
"Please join me in a moment of silence for these brave men and women in their service," Veazey said, adding solemnly afterward, "We wanted to be their family today. It took awhile, but it was worth it."
Lt. Gov. Leslie Rutledge, the keynote speaker, called Memorial Day "a day to reflect on the courage, the commitment, and the selflessness of those who gave their lives to defend our freedoms and to protect our ways of life."
Later, Rutledge mentioned visiting the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor.
Rutledge referenced the veterans who served and were killed in the surprise attack by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941 and the "brave men who stormed the beaches of Normandy" in the D-Day invasion in June 1944, which marked the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.
To Rutledge, because of those veterans, "freedom is here in the United States" and "we carry that beacon of hope and freedom around the globe.
"We defeated evil, then," Rutledge said.
"And now as we are faced in times of evil, whether it's through culture, ideas or conflict and communism and socialism, I can guarantee you that we have brave men and women right here in the Natural State that are serving us proudly around the globe, who will defend that freedom and defeat that evil today."
Rutledge went on to paraphrase a quote from former President Ronald Reagan, saying "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same."
The quote came from a speech given by Reagan on Jan. 5, 1967, when he was inaugurated as the governor of California.
According to the Ronald Reagan Library and a transcript of the speech as it was given, Reagan said, "Freedom is a fragile thing and it's never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. And those in world history who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again."
Rutledge closed her speech with regards to how she believes patriotism should be passed onto young Americans.
"We must teach our young people to respect the flag, to stand, if able, for our National Anthem," said Rutledge, "And to give respect for those who have served and paid the ultimate sacrifice for the greatest country that the world has ever known."