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6,000 crosses deliver silent yet poignant message
Memorial Day Weekend Commemoration catalyst Pastor Mike Dillman is flanked by his daughters Julie Cox and Shelli Prosser while wearing the Not Forgotten 2011 baseball caps. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Woodward Park becomes sacred ground this weekend.

That’s when 6,000 crosses will line the green grass at Woodward Park that usually serves as playing fields for energetic kids playing soccer.

It was those crosses - each representing Americans who have given their lives so far in the Global War on Terror - that brought tears last year not just to veterans and those in active military service but also young children as parents described that the crosses represented people who had died for them.

The field of crosses - as well as the Traveling Tribute inscribed with the names of those who have fallen - are open to the public starting at noon on Saturday. The tribute plus large photographs of Northern San Joaquin Valley sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, wives and husbands - 52 in all including Manteca’s Marine Cpl. Charles Palmer who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The main activities take place Sunday starting with an 8 a.m. run honoring Navy Corpsman Chris Braley of Manteca who lost his eye and suffered brain damage while serving in Iraq. They include a rare missing man formation flyover composed exclusively of the massive C-130 aircraft at 3 p.m. as well as remembrance ceremonies at 6 p.m. The day is capped with a free Josh Gracin concert from 7 to 8:30 p.m. and a large aerial fireworks show afterwards.

Pastor Mike Dillman - a Vietnam era veteran who has been the catalyst behind the Memorial Day Weekend - believes it is appropriate to mix happiness with solemn moments.

“It is why these men and women have given their lives so we could be free as Americans,” Dillman noted.

Speakers last year asked 4,000-plus in attendance - with more than half of them veterans - at the formal ceremonies to be quiet for a moment. As a hush fell over the crowd, the speaker alluded to the happy sounds of kids playing nearby on the Woodward Park playground equipment and noted that men and women have died so that American kids could be free to play.

It prompted one of the biggest applauses of the day.

That approach of solemn reflection and joy will again set the stage for Sunday’s commemoration which is considered the largest of its kind on the West Coast.

The day will include a children’s play zone, a car show with 400 advanced entries, a breakfast, food, entertainment, and more.

At 3 p.m., the 10th panel to the Traveling Tribute will be dedicated in honor of Nathan B. Bruckenthal while serving in Iraq.  He was 24 years old when he became the first Coast Guard member since the Vietnam War to die in combat while serving America.