This story was updated May 28, 2018, at 10:34 p.m.
Memorial Day in ChattanoogaView 14 Photos
Gold Star Mother Mary Newman sat quietly in the front row among a group of Gold Star Wives during Monday's Memorial Day program honoring fallen service members.
Newman, 77, lost her son, 42-year-old John Newman, to pancreatic cancer 10 years ago. He served as a U.S. Navy reservist for a number of years, including an active duty year-long deployment to Iraq. She's convinced the toxic pollutants created by fires that permeated the desert air are to blame for her son's death.
"I'd go to him and try to pick [his spirits] up, and he'd pick me up," she said. "He said, 'Mom, we'll get through this.' We got through it as best we could."
He did better at handling the notion that he was dying than she did, Newman said.
"You don't want to lose a child," she said. "I'm supposed to go first, not my kid."
But her son isn't the only family member Newman has lost to war. Her father, John Davidson, was killed in France while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II when she was only 2 years old.
"I never could figure out why I couldn't have a little brother or sister," she said, noting her mother never remarried.
Despite losing both her father and son, Newman's resilience shows when she says she's had a good life and she's proud of her family.
Memorial Day, for her, is a day to remember those "who've gone before us."
"We still have young men and women that are dying, and we can't forget them," she said. " We need to pray for their families, too, because they're the ones that are left behind."
That sense of reverence is what brought dozens of people to the Memorial Day program despite constant rain for much of the morning and afternoon.
"For some, [Memorial Day is] the unofficial start of summer," said U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., who spoke during the program that was relocated to the National Guard Armory from the Chattanooga National Cemetery because of rain.
He said family reunions and barbecue celebrations are good, but he reminded people to always remember the more than 1 million men and women who died fighting for the freedoms the country enjoys.
"That's why, here on a rainy day in Chattanooga, Tennessee, we come out," he said. "We must always come out, because as we have our celebrations, our barbecues, our honoring of this great day, we know that there are men and women who will not be at those barbecues and family reunions."
"We must always keep them in our memories. We must always keep them in our hearts. We must always keep them in our prayers, because they are our true heroes."