"I never really know what to say when someone says 'Happy Memorial Day,' " she said. "Bless their hearts, they just don't know. I didn't know a couple years ago. … Before he joined the Marines, I was one of those civilians who was just oblivious to what our guys go through."
As the United States continues to fight wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Memorial Day Monday was a somber time of remembrance for many and a day to pray for troops in harm's way. Yet some military families and veterans worry that there's a growing cultural divide between families who sacrifice and serve and those who don't.
"There's a disconnect every day, but I think it's felt even more so on Memorial Day," said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. "The average American family goes to the beach or goes to a barbecue. The average military family goes to a cemetery."
At a ceremony Monday at the national World War II Memorial in Washington, former senator Charles Robb, D-Va., a Marine Corps veteran, told a crowd that Americans may be losing an important link with those the nation relies upon to protect its freedoms. Because the military is all-volunteer, he said, large segments of the public have no family serving and may not know anybody in uniform.
Joe Davis, national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said Memorial Day became the unofficial start of summer rather than a day to honor war dead when Congress created a three-day weekend by moving it to the last Monday in May. "We would like to see Memorial Day return to its original date of May 30," Davis said.
Still, many kept their focus Monday on fallen warriors:
• At Arlington National Cemetery, Vice President Biden said the United States has "a sacred obligation" to provide its troops everything they need to carry out their jobs. He spoke of those who have died. "As a nation, we pause to remember them," Biden said. "They gave their lives fulfilling their oath to this nation and to us."
• President Obama was at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery near Chicago when the ceremony was canceled by torrential rain and lightning. Obama later gave his speech at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington. "We pay special tribute to the thousands of Americans who have given their lives during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and who have earned their place among the greatest of generations," he said.
• In South Dakota, a program honoring fallen veterans from all wars drew 400 to 500 people to the grounds of the Sioux Falls Veterans Administration Medical Center. "This isn't just a day off work," said Vietnam veteran Douglas Callahan, a career Air Force officer. "This is a day we honor those who gave their lives for our country."
• People filled the downtown plaza in Mountain Home, Ark., to hear keynote speaker John Steel, a Vietnam War veteran and veterans advocate.
• In Staunton, Va., Korean War veteran Don Hall, 78, was among more than 250 residents at Gypsy Hill Park Bandstand for a service where speakers talked of sacrifice, a band performed and people prayed. "There were a lot of guys who didn't come back," Hall said as he sat on his walker and took deep breaths from an oxygen tank.
At the World War II Memorial in Washington, wreaths were laid before the wall of gold stars, representing the more than 400,000 Americans who died, and a group of children and teens held near-life-sized photos of servicemen who were among those lost.
Listening in the crowd was World War II veteran Bill Toledo, 86, of Torreon, N.M, who served with the Marines from 1942-45 as a Navajo code talker, helping send military dispatches that foiled the Japanese. Harold "Skip" Adams, 83, who fought at Iwo Jima stood along the edge of the granite memorial, the sun blazing off medals hanging in two rows across the chest of his Marine dress uniform.
"I think of the boys we left on the island," said Adams of San Jose. "We lost about 50% of our platoon."
Nancy Powell of Colorado Springs, a member of American Gold Star Mothers, said Americans can do many things to connect with those serving in the military. They range from saying thanks when they see active-duty soldiers or veterans, volunteering to provide help to troops and their families or simply remembering the military families who have lost relatives in war.
"Grief is a forever thing," said Powell, whose 21-year-old son, Marine Cpl. Kyle Powell, was killed in 2006 during his third tour in Iraq. "Sometimes people forget that."
Contributing: Thomas Garrett of The Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Ark.; Heather Kays of The News Leader in Staunton, Va.; Jay Kirschenmann of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.; the Associated Press