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'This Is Really the Only Place I Could Be Today'
Ceremonies, Parade and Rolling Thunder Honor the Fallen

By Jenna Johnson and Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In previous years, the families spent Memorial Day at barbecues and pool openings. Yesterday, they sat in folding chairs in the shade of a tent at a grassy cemetery dotted with small American flags to honor 10 loved ones with Maryland ties killed in the past year in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Right now, we'd be sitting at home, trying to enjoy the holiday," said Danny Craig of Earleville, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. His son, Cpl. Brandon M. Craig, 25, was killed in July in Iraq.

"We didn't know anything about the Army when Brandon joined," said Mary Jane Craig, who wore her son's dog tags. "It opens your eyes. It's a totally different ballgame. We learned so much about our country, Iraq, everything."

Memorial Day began as a way to recognize troops killed during the Civil War and was expanded after World War I to recognize service members killed in all U.S. wars. With the death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan increasing, the holiday is also a time to honor troops fighting and dying in current conflicts.

In the Washington region, several ceremonies and concerts, a parade and a rally by Rolling Thunder motorcyclists paid tribute to the fallen troops over the weekend.

Yesterday, President Bush joined visitors on a warm morning at Arlington National Cemetery, where he continued the annual tradition of laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Bush recognized all of the troops who died defending the United States and particularly those who lost their lives in the past year.

Wreaths also were laid at the Air Force and Navy memorials.

In the afternoon, 10 blocks of Constitution Avenue NW were closed for the National Memorial Day Parade, which featured marching bands and military units.

Military couple Mike and Kristen Nelson and their two children stood near the National Archives, watching the seemingly endless line of floats and balloons. The Arlington County couple spent most of last year apart: Mike was deployed to Iraq's heavily fortified Green Zone with the Army Corps of Engineers for six months. Five days after he returned home, Kristen learned that she would spend the next six months in Iraq with the Air Force. She returned home in January.

"We didn't plan it. It was unexpected," Mike Nelson said. "So this is the first time we've been able to come out here as a family."

Lance Cpl. Tom Pettit, 19, drove to the District yesterday morning from Marine Corps Base Quantico, where he is stationed. Standing with his hands on his hips, Pettit watched the high school color guards, old cars and colorful floats carrying celebrities such as Miss America 2008 Kirsten Haglund and actor Mickey Rooney, a World War II veteran and honorary parade marshal.

Commemorative coins and tokens jingled in Pettit's pocket. Spotting his uniform, several passersby had eagerly run up to him, patting him on the back and giving him a few mementos.

"People definitely notice the uniform," said Pettit, who is expected to be deployed to an undetermined location between December and February.

Not far from the parade route, hundreds of veterans and their supporters gathered at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall to hear speakers and a reading of the fallen's names. Wreaths and other remembrances, including teddy bears, crosses, photographs and flowers, lined the base of the memorial.

Among the speakers was Army Capt. David Moses. Dragonflies and aircraft buzzed overhead as Moses told about being a "Lost Boy of Sudan," the name given to the tens of thousands of children who were displaced or orphaned during that country's civil war. They trekked hundreds of miles through treacherous desert, enduring hunger and evading wild animals and marauders, to reach safety.

After arriving in the United States as a refugee, Moses said, he worked at a slaughterhouse in Sioux Falls, S.D., attended college in Utah and realized his dream of joining the U.S. military.

"To me, it is a miracle that I am here today," he said. "And as I think back to that long and impossible journey from Africa to South Dakota to Utah to Iraq and now to this sacred wall, I am reminded of the lessons this journey has for all of us."

Visitors from across the country, including members of motorcycle clubs who descend on Washington every Memorial Day, listened in solemn silence to Moses's story. At a shady bench nearby, Sibel Bulay, 55, an American living in Turkey, approached Vietnam veteran Tony Sarica to express her regret for civil strife that seized the United States during that war.

Sarica, 61, belongs to the New Jersey chapter of the Vietnam Vets Motorcycle Club, where he goes by the name Scorpio. He sat stoically as Bulay spoke.

"I still feel really bad about how we treated the Vietnam vets when they came back, and whenever I meet one of these guys, I try to tell them how I feel," Bulay said. "This is really the only place I could be today."

During a morning ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Baltimore County, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D) told several hundred people that Memorial Day "today carries added significance" because more than 1,000 service members with ties to Maryland are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan and nearly 100 have died there.

"Each of us owes them a debt of gratitude that we'll never be able to repay," said Brown, who served as an Army Reservist in Iraq.

Sheila Towns of Upper Marlboro attended the ceremony in honor of her husband, Staff Sgt. Robin L. Towns Sr., 52.

Towns joined the Army when he was 17 and the D.C. National Guard after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He was killed in October in Iraq after a makeshift bomb detonated near his Humvee.

Last week, Towns's unit returned from Iraq without him, but his wife attended the homecoming party last Tuesday night. Then there was a memorial ceremony in her husband's home state, Virginia, on Thursday night. On Saturday, she laid a bouquet of miniature roses on his grave in Arlington National Cemetery.

"I'm just taking it one day at a time," she said. "One day at a time."

Staff writer Derek Kravitz contributed to this report.

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