“What's great about America is that when we lose one, we take the time — and we must always take the time — to honor that sacrifice. All are special.”
A reverent audience packed Memorial Day ceremonies at the Chattanooga National Cemetery on Monday, marking the solemn holiday's 150th anniversary with salutes and tears.
Bill Catoe, cemetery grounds foreman, estimated "probably close to 1,800 to 2,000 people" attended the annual Memorial Day program, organized by the Chattanooga Area Veterans Council. That figure is 25 percent higher than last year, he said.
"This is the largest crowd we've ever seen," Catoe said as the crowd dispersed following the hoisting of the colors and a performance of taps by David Cox, division vice commander for Chattanooga Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Attendees Paula Graham and Lisa Bartholomey said they came out to pay respects to family and friends buried at the National Cemetery.
Speakers remarked upon the sacrifices made by those who serve in the nation's armed forces and those gathered to honor them.
Mayor Andy Berke said he liked to believe that so many people attended the Memorial Day program because the city "has shown its essential character" since the July 16, 2015 shootings that took the lives of five servicemen.
"There's never been a prouder moment for me to be a Chattanoogan than in the days, weeks and months following July 16 of last year," Berke said.
During that time, Chattanooga area residents demonstrated their patriotism, compassion, and belief in their fellow man, he said. The city rallied behind the victims' families as they worked to "get to the the other side" of the worst moments of loss and grief.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann shared stories "from the heart" to illustrate the commitment of America's armed service men and women and the honor due to them, including his immediate reaction to the July 16 shootings.
"What's great about America is that when we lose one, we take the time — and we must always take the time — to honor that sacrifice," Fleischmann said. "All are special."
He also recounted the 2013 discovery of the remains of U.S. Army Pfc. Cecil E. Harris by a French hiker. Harris died in France on Jan. 2, 1945, and was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery in 2014.
"Our great country brought Cecil back," and "our great community" welcomed him back, Fleischmann said.
Jo Bridges of American Legion Post 95 Auxiliary said freedom continues to come at a price.
"Freedom is our common birthright, but we should not become so smug that we believe freedom and equality are blessings inherited from our forefathers," Bridges said. "What we inherited was the framework, machinery and the ideas. The reality is something that each generation must achieve for itself."
Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @pleach_tfp.