Merced honors fallen soldiers during Memorial Day services

aibarra@mercedsunstar.comMay 26, 2014 

Hundreds of Merced residents honored “the greatest of every generation” at solemn Memorial Day services Monday.

The commemorations for the fallen began at Calvary Cemetery, then proceeded next door to the Merced District Cemetery, where the local chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary and the Veterans of Foreign Wars conducted a special ceremony.

It included the placing of a wreath and folded flag. There was also a raising of the American flag and an honor guard salute. The American Legion Riders presented the colors and the Harmony Valley Chorus performed the national anthem and “God Bless America.”

“Today, we remember the young Americans who have put our survival on their backs,” said Merced native Mel Levey, the guest speaker. “We do not celebrate a single day or life in history. We honor the millions of men and women who died fighting for the values of freedom and democracy that define our nation.

“We do not honor a single greatest generation or a single battle,” said Levey, a decorated officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is running for Congress. “Rather, we remember the greatest of every generation in every war that our country has fought.”

Danielle Cotta-Lightner, vice president of the Women’s Auxiliary and the event chairwoman, received the honor of placing a wreath at the flagpole.

“My dad served for several years and I currently have two sons in the service, one in the Army and one in the Air Force, so this means a lot to me,” Cotta-Lightner said. “To be able to do this was truly an honor.”

Jack Perry, president of the American Legion Riders, served four years in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He said he has several friends buried at the Merced District Cemetery.

“Whether you lose a friend or you don’t lose a friend, whether you knew them or you didn’t, they’re still our brothers in arms,” he said, “and we can’t say enough about those who gave all; they’re the true heroes.”

Memorial Day services continued at Courthouse Park, where the Merced chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America read the names of fallen soldiers.

In the crowd was Planada resident Anita Richards, who six years ago received news that no mother ever wants to hear. Her only son, Army Staff Sgt. Frank Gasper, 25, was killed when his vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.

“For me, this day is about all those men and women whose names you see on those walls,” Richards said, pointing to the memorial. “It’s important that we remember and never forget, and that’s why I’m here every year.”

Claude Ellison, a member of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said he remembers his comrades lost in battle every day, but Memorial Day is always special because it helps celebrate the memory of many who never received recognition for their acts of bravery.

“Most of these guys got spit on when they returned (from Vietnam). They weren’t warmly received,” Ellison said. “Now is the time to bring these veterans to the forefront and give them the recognition they deserve.”

The day’s events ended with refreshments and one last ceremony at the American Legion Hall on Main Street.

Sun-Star staff writer Ana B. Ibarra can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or aibarra@mercedsunstar.com.

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