Hundreds of families and friends came out on Monday for Memorial Day services around the county.
Flags rippled in a steady breeze at the Merced District Cemetery, as Gold Star mother Anita Richards placed the ceremonial wreath at the cemetery flag pole, where the American flag was flown at half staff until noon.
"Memorial Day is really, for Gold Star mothers, every day, but it's nice when the community comes out to support and remember," said the mother of Staff Sgt. Frank Gasper, 25, who died in Iraq in 2008. "The only thing you can really ask is that they not be forgotten."
Starting at 9 a.m. in Merced at the Calvary Cemetery and then moving to the Merced District Cemetery, the local chapters of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars paid tribute to fallen soldiers with a flag-raising ceremony, rifle salute and speeches.
"On Memorial Day, this most sacred day, we pause to reflect on what has been given and sacrificed," said Vince Cole, commander for the American Legion of Merced, speaking to hundreds quietly gathered in the veterans section of the district cemetery.
"Let us never forget, freedom is not a gift," Cole stressed. "It is an earned benefit that was paid for by the blood of our heroes."
From the Revolutionary War to the war on terrorism, the United States has lost more than a million men and women in combat, Cole said.
"It's a lot of lost hopes and dreams," he said. "Most of them are very young, pretty much what we would call kids. Some of them were fathers and mothers. It's just an astounding number when you think of the lives that were cut short defending our freedoms."
After the recent decade of war, the federal holiday takes on a heightened significance, said John Bain, commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Merced.
"Programs like this are a lot more meaningful because we have a lot of families," he said. "How many people do you know that have served in the service family members, friends, acquaintances and that ended up falling in combat?"
Later in the day, the annual ceremony at Courthouse Park featured several guest speakers and dignitaries, as well as flag-raising and a rifle salute by the American Legion and VFW.
At the Livingston Memorial Park, the Livingston-Delhi VFW and the Ladies Auxiliary held their annual observance.
Memorial Day events help families with the grieving processes, Richards said.
"Carrying on their name and knowing that they're not forgotten is probably the biggest healing process," she said. "It's a time to bond with other people who know what you're feeling and know what you're going through.
"It's very helpful for the community to come out and show their support," Richards said.
The Merced Gold Star mothers will host their fourth annual "Run for the Fallen" on June 15. Merced's version of the nationwide event features a 4.2-mile run, starting and ending in Applegate Park at the flag pole by M Street.
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or firstname.lastname@example.org.