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Reflecting on the price of our freedom
Veteran Ralph Graves (right) talks with members of the Manteca Unified School District Honor Guard before the start of Mondays Memorial Day ceremony at East Union Cemetery, while standing over his parents grave marker. Members of the MUSD Honor Guard were: Joseph Ensslin, Ronald Ong, Austin Tuers and Brittany Carter. - photo by James Burns

A bell tolled each time Lee Herren read from a list much too long, written in the blood of Manteca’s fallen soldiers.

Hope McFall, World War I.

Kenneth Grisham, Angelo Ponzio, Donald Henson and James Connors among many others who served in World War II.

Gordon Thomson to John C. Martin, those of The Forgotten War that will never be forgotten.

Herren paused after remembering Manteca’s 17 sons who lost their lives in the Vietnam War. Those casualties tug at his heartstrings. That war stirs in him in his sleep. Herren too served in Vietnam.

After a brief moment, he finished his reading: Michael Vega and Charles Palmer III, the war in Iraq.

On Monday, wind pushed the flags at the East Union Cemetery back and forth, putting the focus among those that gathered on the cemetery lawn remained straight-forward and focused.

For the 150 in attendance, Memorial Day wasn’t simply a day without work, or one to stick a tee in the ground or barbeque. First and foremost, Monday was about honoring the soldiers of any war, branch and age, but especially the ones who died in the line of duty.

Those orders were captured in a snapshot shortly before Monday’s ceremony, hosted by Commander Carlon Perry and Jimmie Connors Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6311.

Ralph Graves, dressed in camouflage fatigues, stood over his mother and father’s grave markers – Charles and Willie Mae.

Dad was in the Navy and served in World War I. Mom was plugged into real estate, Graves said.

Life hasn’t been kind to Ralph Graves, a retired Chief Master Sergeant in the Air Force. He lost his Manteca home – “We had to walk away from it,” he said – and moved to Stockton, where he and his wife reside in an assisted-living facility.

He still drives, but needs a cane and wheelchair to get around on foot.

The one source of pride, he says, is his rich military background and unwavering allegiance to his country. Graves served from February 1948 to December 1990.

“If I hadn’t gone into the military,” he said, “I would have gone to jail. I was digging ditches in the Mojave. ... I didn’t want to dig ditches in the desert anymore.”

Graves stood over his parents’ grave markers, locked in conversation with perhaps Manteca’s next wave of soldiers: Joseph Ensslin, Ronald Ong, Austin Tuers and Brittany Carter of the Manteca Unified School District’s Honor Guard.

The four, representing Manteca, East Union and Lathrop high schools, posted the colors and were lauded by keynote speaker Allen Clark, a Purple Heart recipient, as “the best drilled color guard I’ve seen.”

“I think this is great,” Graves said. “We can never have too much of this. We got to have more remembrances and memorials, and we need the youth to participate.”

The ceremony began with an address from Perry. Miss Winterfest Robyn Glover sang the national anthem and Tom Liggett of Post 6311 and American Legion Post 249 led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

“God bless America!” he yelled into the microphone, punctuating his pledge.

Post Chaplain Larry Lambert delivered the Invocation and Benediction, and Veronica Reyes of the Post 6311 Ladies Auxiliary handed out flowers to the families that have either lost a loved one or have a member of their family currently enlisted.

Members of the VFW Post 6311 and its Ladies Auxiliary, American Legion Post 249 and Happy Wheels laid wreaths at the base of the cemetery’s main flag, which stood at half mast.

But a majority of the hour-long ceremony belonged to Allen, a decorated veteran who lost both of his legs following a mor tar attack in Vietnam.

Clark has been awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Bronze State, Air Medal and Combat Infantryman’s Badge. He has been a special assistant to the governor of Texas Bill Clements (1979-80) and once served as the director of the National Cemetery System of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

He spoke passionately about the virtues of faith and purpose, and how each one helped save him from a post-war life of anti-depressants and close psychiatric therapy.

He called his wounds a blessing; they’ve allowed him to become a healing warrior for today’s injured and sick soldier. The Vietnam War may have taken his legs and shattered his soul, he said, but he rebuilt himself with faith.

“Where are we in the rebuilding of ourselves, spiritually?” he asked rhetorically when talking about the 9-11 terrorist attack.

Finally, Allen challenged those in attendance to uphold the sacrifices and standards of the soldiers whose names appeared on Herren’s list.

“... So that they won’t have died in vain,” Clark said.