MERIDEN — Dan Flores paused to straighten a flag next to a veteran’s grave in Walnut Grave Cemetery. He placed a wreath on the headstone.
“I respect veterans. I am very patriotic. I love our flag. I love our country,” said Flores, a Wolcott resident who spent three decades as a police officer in Waterbury.
While Flores didn't get the opportunity to serve in the armed forces, his son Dan was in the Army. Dan has had a hard time after his deployment, Flores said, so coming along to Walnut Grove wasn’t an option.
But for Flores, paying homage to veterans isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a way to honor his son.
“(Veterans) understand that freedom isn’t free. All the stuff that we are allowed to do isn’t just because. It’s because of this,” Flores said, gesturing to a veteran’s grave.
About 50 people assembled Saturday morning to pay homage to individuals who served in defense of the nation. American Legion Post 45 hosted a “Wreaths Across America” event afternoon at the cemetery’s Hubbard Memorial Chapel. It was one of 1,400 coordinated wreath-laying ceremonies occurring at Arlington National Cemetery and other venues across the nation.
Wreaths were placed in the chapel honoring all five branches of the armed services and the over 90,000 American service personnel still listed as missing or as a prisoner of war. Georgetta Sharpe, a member of the American Legion Women’s Auxiliary, led a short memorial service before people fanned out across the cemetery to decorate veterans’ graves.
“We are here not only to remember their deaths but also their lives,” said Sharpe, a Meriden resident.
Mayor Kevin Scarpati spoke of the sacrifice all members of the service and their families make.
“Those who made the ultimate sacrifice fought so bravely and gave our lives so we can enjoy days like today,” Scarpati said. “We can celebrate and pay back those who have given their all.”
Members of Sharpe’s family served in almost every branch of the service during World War II, Korea, and the Persian Gulf. When Sharpe was 15 years old, her uncle William Louis Toffling sat down with her and told her the story of his experience surviving the Bataan Death March in 1942. She can still visualize the suffering her uncle endured.
“There are things he told me that I’ll take with me to my grave,” she said.
For many veterans, Wreaths Across America is yet one more way for their service to be acknowledged.
“I don’t think you can express how gratifying it is to be recognized,” said Bob Bissell, an Army veteran and member of the Renegade Pigs, a law enforcement motorcycle club who came to the ceremony to help distribute wreaths.
Meriden resident Larry Libby served in the United States Marine Corps for over two decades, rising to the rank of sergeant. He served in Vietnam and recalled the reception members of the service received back then.
“When I came back we were spit at and had things thrown at us,” Libby said. “They’ve turned that corner.”
Bissell and a few of his colleagues found the grave of a Civil War era Medal of Honor winner, Thomas Blackwell, who lived from 1820 to 1901 and served in the 71st Pennsylvania Volunteers.
“Tommy Blackwell. You hero,” Bissell said.
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