Americans gather to honor fallen service members

Associated Press
Marine Staff Sgt. Travis Hassell, center, and his son Issac show off Francis Slate's, left, Honorable Discharge Card from the U.S. Army Dec. 3, 1945, as they wait for President Barack Obama to deliver his Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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Marine Staff Sgt. Travis Hassell, center, and his son Issac show off Francis Slate's, left, Honorable Discharge Card from the U.S. Army Dec. 3, 1945, as they wait for President Barack Obama to deliver his Memorial Day address at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., Monday, May 27, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

ATLANTA (AP) — Susan Jimison was 14 in the summer of 1969 when her older brother, Warrant Officer Mark Clotfelter, was shot down on a mission in Vietnam. He was later confirmed dead.

Forty-four years later, she's writing a book about her brother and his company. "It's written as a letter to him," she said. "The title is 'Dear Mark.'"

On Monday, as Americans across the country celebrated Memorial Day with parades, tributes and traditional observances, including President Barack Obama laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery, Jimison helped christen a new veterans park in Atlanta.

From a canteen used by a soldier in World War II, she poured onto the park grounds water collected from oceans and waterways significant to American military history.

Retired Army Lt. Col. Rick Lester, who helped organize the event, said the water symbolized the tears shed by the families of soldiers, airmen, Marines and seamen slain over generations of conflict. Jimison joined others who sprinkled what Lester called reminders "of our country's timeline of freedom."

At Arlington, as combat in Afghanistan approaches 12 years, Obama urged the nation to remember.

"Let us not forget as we gather here today that our nation is still at war," Obama said after laying the tradition wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns.

"When they give their lives, they are still being laid to rest in cemeteries in quiet corners across our country, including here in Arlington," he said. He told the stories of three soldiers who had died. Each had been devoted to their mission and were praised by others for saving lives.

In Atlanta, sprinkled at the park grounds was dirt from the banks of the Delaware River, where General George Washington crossed during the Revolutionary War. Soil came from Germany and France for the Great War now known as World War I.

For its successor a generation later came water from Pearl Harbor, sand from the beaches of Normandy, dirt from the island of Iwo Jima. Chunks of earth came from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Even pieces of the Berlin Wall for those who served throughout the Cold War. There was none from the Civil War, Lester, said, because "that was a time that our country was divided."

Before they were sprinkled, the soil samples were mixed in a helmet Lester's father wore on D-Day in France during World War II. It was sprinkled from metal cups his uncle, a Marine, used throughout the same war. His father survived. His uncle did not.

The importance of the military refrain "never forget" seared into his mind, he said, as a child, as he watched his uncle's fellow Marines visit his grandmother. A pilot in Vietnam, he recalled in detail the numbers of men lost from missions he flew.

"All I can think about is how those were some of the greatest guys I ever met and what they would have done for this country once they got back," he said.

For Jimison, Monday's commemoration was a far cry from how her family and friends handled her brother's death when it happened. "Nobody talked about it," she said, recalling how politically unpopular American involvement in Vietnam had become and how that affected how veterans and military families were viewed publicly.

So it took many years before she learned much about her brother's service. "My brother died doing what he loved doing," she said. "He was a pilot, and he flew for his country."

At the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, about 20 bicyclists clustered around veteran and museum volunteer Tom Blakey. The paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division jumped at Normandy on D-Day — June 6, 1944 — and in May 1945 helped liberate the work camp at Wobbelin in northwest Germany.

"Most of us wondered why we were there, killing people and being killed," he said. "We didn't do anything to deserve it. When we got to that camp and saw what was there, the lights came on."

The cycling group makes regular weekend training runs, and on Monday started a Memorial Day ride about seven miles away at the national cemetery in Chalmette, where the Battle of New Orleans — the last in the War of 1812 — was fought.

In the nation's heartland, a veterans park that usually would have been a spot for Memorial Day barbecues instead drew volunteers staffing a medical clinic and cleaning up debris in Moore, Okla.

Homes east and west of the park were destroyed in last week's tornado, and flying debris damaged park equipment and ripped out countless trees — some 50 feet high.

Out West, once again aboard the historic USS Hornet, 83-year-old Dale Berven reflected on his tour of duty in Korea as a naval aviator as he took in the commemoration. As the bugle corps warmed up, Berven looked out from the now-decommissioned aircraft carrier docked in Alameda, across the bay from San Francisco, which ferried him around the world in a goodwill tour in 1954, the year after the Korean War ended.

At just 23 years old, Berven said he flew dozens of sorties as a lieutenant junior grade with the 91st Fighter Squadron.

"I was young and single, I had volunteered and I wanted to do that type of work," said Berven, now a docent at the USS Hornet Museum. "That is how people are now. They're not drafted, so you have 18-, 19-year olds who are giving up their lives for the freedom of this country. We ought to honor all those service men and women and not bring politics into it."

The holiday weekend also marked the traditional start of the U.S. vacation season. AAA, one of the nation's largest leisure travel agencies, expected 31.2 million Americans to hit the road over the weekend, virtually the same number as last year. Gas prices were about the same as last year, up 1 cent to a national average of $3.65 a gallon Friday.

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Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Janet McConnaughey in New Orleans; Garance Burke in San Francisco, and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.

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