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For the Fallen

By Charles D. Brunt
Copyright © 2009 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          The families of four soldiers and an airman who lost their lives serving in the Middle East are being invited to the New Mexico Veterans' Memorial this Memorial Day to participate in ceremonies honoring their fallen warriors.
        Three decorated Vietnam veterans — who didn't receive so much as a "thank you" when they returned home from that unpopular war more than three decades ago — led efforts to organize and fund this morning's event.
        Backed by dozens of veterans organizations that make up the United Veterans Council, Peter Comstock, Ken O'Keefe and Larry Blair will not only ensure that the event goes off without a hitch, but will also make certain the families of those being honored don't have to pay a penny's worth of expenses.
        "We know these families in many cases are hard-pressed for money," said Blair, president of the local chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army.
        "We didn't want to have families have to spend their own money to come here to honor their own kin, so we said we'll do what we can to pay their expenses," he said.
        Since 2005, the veterans' council has sponsored Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremonies at the Veterans' Memorial — a sprawling facility adjacent to Kirtland Air Force Base that honors the thousands of New Mexico service members who sacrificed all for their country.
        For each ceremony, families of service members who have died since the previous ceremony have been invited to attend, and their travel and lodging expenses have been covered by United Veterans Council members.
        The council also hosts a post-ceremony luncheon for the families — a perk that Comstock, who is president of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, said is as important to the families as the ceremonies themselves.
        It costs tens of thousands of dollars a year to host the families, said O'Keefe, president of the United Veterans Council, but contributors view the expenses as an opportunity to thank the families rather than as a burden.
        The veterans council has hosted as many as 15 families at a ceremony, and as few as three.
        During the ceremonies, family members are presented three mementos: an engraved brick bearing their warrior's name, which will be permanently installed in the walkways of the veterans' memorial; a personalized plaque etched with the warrior's image from the Military Order of the Purple Heart; and a one-of-a-kind quilt made by members of the Jemez Mountain Bear Paw Quilting Guild.
        "Those ladies up there at Jemez Springs have made more than 70 quilts, specifically for fallen warriors' families," Blair said. "They're unique for each warrior."
        The presentations are made by members of the deceased warriors' branch of service.
        Blair, Comstock and O'Keefe, each of whom were wounded in Vietnam and are recipients of Purple Heart medals, said they volunteer their time for a simple reason: It's the right thing to do.
        "During Vietnam, when we came home, we got nothing. In fact we got abuse and ridicule — and sometimes worse than that," Blair said. "I think this generation, these Vietnam veterans who are doing this and really championing this effort, are saying, 'We're not going to let these guys be treated like we were.' We never had any parades. Nobody welcomed us home. If you came home in a box, the only people who went to your funeral were your family."
        "Never again," Comstock said." That's not going to happen to another warrior coming home like it did to us."
        "Something that Larry says when he ends a presentation says it best," O'Keefe said: "'We understand and we won't forget.'"
        The three are quick to downplay their efforts and shift credit to others: Southwest Airlines for donating air travel; Kirtland Air Force Base for logistics help; Kirtland Federal Credit Union, which picks up the tab for the luncheons; the Blue Star Mothers and Gold Star Mothers; Patriot Guard Riders; and local hotels that donate rooms for the families.
        Comstock said the event has become more than a tribute to the fallen.
        "In the very beginning, I think all we thought we were doing was honoring these fallen warriors," he said. "What it's evolved into is something that only somebody who has lost a child, or a wife or a husband, can really understand."
        Participating families learn that "other families are going through this same part of the grieving process," and often find comfort in finding they're not alone. "It think that is as much a part, if not the biggest part, of the tribute that we're paying," he said.
    List of events in N.M.
    n 8:30 a.m.­ — Flag ceremony, rifle salute, "Reveille" and "Taps" at Sunset Memorial Park, 924 Menaul Blvd. NE, sponsored by French Funeral and Cremation Services. For more information, call Dayna Gardner at 843-6333.
    n 9 a.m. — New Mexico Veterans' Memorial, 1100 Louisiana Blvd. SE.
    Events include music, speeches, rifle and cannon salutes and a Fallen Warrior tribute honoring four soldiers and one airman killed in the Middle East in the past year. The New Mexico Air National Guard's 150th Fighter Wing will perform a fly-over of F-16 Fighting Falcons. For more information, call the memorial at 256-2042.
    n 11 a.m. — Memorial Day ceremonies at Sunset Memorial Park, 924 Menaul Blvd. NE. Guest speaker will be Brig. Gen. Everett H. Thomas, commander of the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center at Kirtland Air Force Base.
    n 7 p.m. — New Mexico
    Veterans' Memorial, 1100 Louisiana Blvd. SE.
    Unveiling of the War on Terror Veterans' Memorial honoring New Mexico service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. For more information, call Sean Bryant at 400-8299.
    1 p.m. — Ceremony at the Sandoval County Courthouse. Dan Trujillo, a former prisoner of war in Korea, will be guest speaker. For more information call Henry Miller at 463-6288.
    Santa Fe
    n 10 a.m. — Santa Fe National Cemetery, 501 N. Guadalupe St. Ceremonies include music by the Santa Fe Chorale Concert Band, keynote speech by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., POW-MIA candle lighting, wreath laying, rifle and cannon salutes and a fly-over by the New Mexico Air National Guard's 150th Fighter Wing's F-16 Fighting Falcons. For more information, call the cemetery at (505) 988-6400.

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