Military graves inspire words of love, sacrifice in Santa Nella

SANTA NELLA -- Neal Camp spent four years in the Navy constructing communications equipment at Guantánamo Bay and Sicily and other locales during the Vietnam War.

Sunday, he donned a black vest with military veteran patches and decals and rode his motorcycle in a Memorial Day weekend service honoring veterans at San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, about 50 miles southwest of Modesto.

"My family's been in the military for generations, and my dad's buried here. It's an honor to come out and show my respect," said the 54-year-old Merced resident.

Hundreds attended the 90-minute ceremony while many more visited graves, bringing flowers, wreaths and U.S. flags. Flanked by soft yellow and golden-brown hills and dark green trees, the cemetery is home to more than 30,000 graves of veterans and their spouses.

Several dignitaries from across the San Joaquin Valley thanked former and current soldiers and their families, using words such as courage, devotion, contribution and sacrifice.

"I'm glad to see so many people here today who remember that Memorial Day is not just about barbecues and parties," said Gustine Mayor Pro Tem Joe Oliveira, speaking to the audience from across a reflection pond.

Buffalo Soldiers were recognized Sunday for their contributions. These soldiers were the nation's first black professional soldiers in a peacetime army. They were recruited into six all-black units beginning in 1866, drawing from former slaves and Civil War veterans.

These black soldiers were called Buffalo Soldiers by the Plains Indians.

They helped pave the way for other minorities to serve in the military, including women, but they are not listed in the official Army lineage series, said John E. Collins. He served as a private and is one of the oldest surviving Buffalo Soldiers from World War II.

Some Buffalo Soldier re-enactors dressed in Civil War-era uniforms and rode horses before and after the ceremony.

To close out the ceremony, the California National Guard Funeral Honor Program delivered a three-volley rifle salute and played taps.

The somber occasion is an important reminder of those who have served or are serving in the military and their families, said Larry Taylor. From 1992 to 2004, the Salida resident was a mechanic in the Army, until he was injured during an attack in Iraq.

"Before I joined the military, I wasn't that patriotic, but once you have a near-death experience and you have the camaraderie of fellow soldiers, you don't really know what it is until it's gone," said Taylor, 38, a father of two daughters. He suffered an injury that limits his left ankle's mobility.

Although many people don't take a minute during Memorial Day weekend to think about veterans, servicemen and women, or those who have died in the military, Taylor said, their contributions to Americans' freedoms should be remembered.

"I feel it's my duty to be here for those buried here and still serving and in lieu of my service," he said. "I want to pay tribute to those veterans before me who weren't as lucky as me."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at or 578-2339.

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