YUKON — In a space set between seven granite stones, manicured rose bushes and a U.S. flag at half-staff, they spoke with conviction to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice that comes with preserving freedom.
About 80 people gathered Monday at the Yukon Cemetery, 660 Garth Brooks Blvd., for a Memorial Day tradition that dates back decades. Teary-eyed community members took turns at the war memorial site reading the names of the veterans who are buried at the cemetery.
The names of 1,222 were read aloud. One by one. Each as important as the next. Many prefaced with “my father,” “my brother” or “my uncle.”
“It gets emotional,” said James Tallant, 82, an Army veteran who served in the Korean War.
“It still gives me cold chills,” said Dale Everett, 70, a Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War.
Tallant and Everett are both active members of the Yukon American Legion Post 160. Tallant has helped organize its Memorial Day ceremony for more than 50 years and Everett for the past 25. It took little more than an hour Monday to read each name, as the group paused at noon to raise the flag back to full-staff.
Yukon’s Memorial Day tradition began in the 1960s when Post 160 members placed flags at the gravesites of about 200 veterans buried at the cemetery.
By 1985, that list had grown and the ceremony had evolved. Instead of simply marking the graves of veterans who were either killed in action or died after returning home, their names also would be immortalized each year through voice.
The current war memorial site was dedicated in 1995, with the name of every veteran buried in the cemetery etched into the granite stones.
It is updated twice each year by the Yukon Historical Society, whose members comb over obituaries to make sure no veteran with deep Yukon roots is left out.
“People tend to forget what happened 20, 40 or 50 years ago,” said John Knupple, 86, a Navy veteran who served in World War II who also serves as the historical society’s president.
“We’re not going to let them forget. Those people contributed just like the veterans that were buried here last year. They’re just as important,” he said.
Old tradition, new faces
About 30 minutes before the first name was read, Marie Wilkins, 83, already had found her viewing place for the ceremony.
“I come early so I can get this parking spot,” she said from the front seat of her sport utility vehicle parked about 30 feet from the war memorial.
Wilkins has read her husband’s name every Memorial Day for 25 years. William Wilkins died in 1988 stemming from complications of a high right leg amputation he suffered while in military service during World War II, she said.
Limited in mobility, Wilkins used a walker and Tallant’s help to reach the lectern when it was her turn to read her list names — which included her husband’s.
“It’s very important to me,” Wilkins said.
“They died for me. They died for my freedom ... It’s very emotional, because I am a patriotic person. That’s just the way I am. It means everything to me.”
Jana Robinson, 31, a first-timer at the ceremony, read two lists of names.
Born into a military family that’s fought in every American conflict, she spent a 10-month tour in Iraq from 2009-10 in the Army before moving to Yukon, she said.
She found out about the ceremony at a weekly coffee meeting with area business leaders and was compelled to attend.
“I just felt like it was a great opportunity to pay my respects, especially to a lot of the older generation of veterans,” Robinson said.
“They didn’t get the same gratitude that many of us are getting now.”