YUMA, Ariz. -- “Freedom is not free.”
This perpetually used, yet never clichéd, American mantra encompasses the meaning of Memorial Day – reflection and remembrance for the men and women who have lost their lives in service to the United States.
Interlaced within the American populace are those few who donned camouflage and took up arms in support of this country – veterans who endured the hardships of national service and potentially lost comrades on the field of battle.
During Memorial Day in Yuma, Ariz., a group of veterans assembled as the honor guard for American Legion Federal Post No. 19 and conducted a day-long tribute by attending memorial ceremonies at a number of the city’s cemeteries. Their presence was powerful, and the concluding tribute they brought to the ceremonies, an honorary 21-gun salute, was highly anticipated and embraced by the citizens of Yuma.
These veterans of the Legion’s honor guard, mostly Vietnam-era troops, carried with them an unfathomable story – a tale of boys becoming men under the pressure of war, recognizable today through their impeccable bearing and unyielding appreciation for the fallen.
“When we started getting hit, we would get hit by mortar rounds, artillery rounds and so forth about 170 times a day for three months straight. All of a sudden you start wondering if the next day would be your last,” said retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jesse Martinez, the ceremonial team commander for Post No. 19, on his experience in the Battle of Khe Sanh, Vietnam. “You see a lot of your buddies die … it’s not something you can ever really imagine unless you were there. If it’s your time, it’s going to be your time, and I guess it wasn’t my time at that time.”
In the aftermath of many of their military careers, veterans are forced to jumble the puzzle pieces together and move on.
The American Legion and fellow veteran organizations, such as the Veterans of Foreign Wars, are there to support those who served and offer them a close-knit community.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are, or when or how long you served,” said Martinez, a San Antonio native. “If you’re a veteran and you need help with something, we’ll help you.”
Martinez explained that the Legion’s ceremonial participation is not only limited to Memorial Day; the honor guard is available to and has performed in several veterans’ funeral services and military remembrance services.
“This is the United States of America, and we are all Americans,” said retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Terry Green, the Legion’s District 1 commander and a native of Allentown, Pa. “Sometimes, when I was out with my Marines putting Harrier pads down and working on aircraft, there were Seabees with us, soldier engineers and civilians with us, and we were all doing it for the honor and freedom of the United States.”
Regardless of the occasion, the men and women of the Legion will undoubtedly continue to demonstrate their undying respect for those who have given their lives for this country. Their faithful service sets the standard for the future generations of American veterans.