Since moving his family to Tracy in 1983, Saunders has participated in every Memorial Day ceremony. Though he now moves around with the help of a walker, on Monday, his back was straight and his eyes showed both steely resolve and pride as he participated in the honor guard for his 31st Memorial Day at the Tracy Cemetery, 501 E. Schulte Road.
“I know so many of them out here,” Saunders said, looking around the cemetery at the graves of American veterans marked with small flags flipping in the breeze.
Military service is intensely personal for Saunders.
“I have three brothers and we were all in the military during Vietnam. Air Force, Marines, Navy,” Saunders said. “I also have two sons that served: one in the Marines, one in the Navy.”
Saunders and more than 200 others listened to speakers — including Tracy Mayor Brent Ives and county supervisor, and retired Army colonel, Bob Elliott — talk about the cost of freedom and the responsibility of the community to those who serve.
“When America was called to challenge, they stood up. They were the ones that went out on the field of battle for us, and I appreciate that with all my heart,” Ives said.
Ives said that Memorial Day was an opportunity for all the members of the community to rededicate themselves to honoring soldiers who have fallen on foreign fields.
“We need to assert that we won’t falter. That we won’t forget this. That we will continue to pass it from generation to generation,” Ives said. “We as a community and we as a nation will continue to be great so long as we are vigilant in remembering and we pass these lessons along.”
Elliott, who served 30 years in the Army, expressed his pride that so many residents came out for the ceremony.
“The people of Tracy are some of the most patriotic people I know. In Tracy, we remember our veterans and we remember their families,” he said. “We can all take pride in our presence here today and know that veterans, military personnel and their families greatly appreciate your support.”
Elliott asked everyone in attendance to remember that Memorial Day was not just a day off from work.
“If some in our communities think that Memorial Day is the day that swimming pools open, we can all thank the triumph of those brave souls that we honor on Memorial Day,” he said. “We remember those who are no longer with us because they sacrificed their lives in defense of our freedom.”
Saunders, 72, agreed that Tracy residents are very good about honoring veterans and was gratified that such a large crowd came out Monday for the ceremony.
He said that even when many Americans weren’t so supportive, he knew that he and the friends he lost overseas had secured the rights of every citizen — including the right to protest.
“When I came back from Vietnam, I was still on duty in Alameda on an admiral’s staff. I stood there while protesters protested outside our gates and more or less spit on the guys that came back, saying, ‘You’re baby killers,’ and all this stuff,” Saunders said. “It’s a freedom of speech. I don’t like anyone burning the flag, but that’s their right under the Constitution, and we fought for that.”
It was a theme heard over and over during the ceremony Monday.
“Freedom is only possible because of our fallen heroes. We are free today because they paid the high price to win it,” Elliott said to the assembled crowd. “One of the most important things we can do is to do our part to make sure this country remains a country worth defending. A country worthy of the sacrifices of our armed forces personnel.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 830-4231.