Memorial Day is the busiest day of the year at Calverton National Cemetery and still the military dead, nearly 250,000 strong, vastly outnumbered the living who gathered there Monday to honor them.
Among the visitors was the mother of Medal of Honor recipient Pfc. Garfield M. Langhorn, killed after diving onto a grenade in Vietnam in 1969 to save the lives of fellow soldiers.
Mary Langhorn, 91, of Riverhead, wore a white dress and the green jacket of the Vietnam Veterans of America, and recalled the afternoon she learned of her son's death. Two Army officers "were sitting on my porch waiting for me when I came home from work," she said. "He was 20."
She held a small piece of paper that bore on one side the details of her son's actions, undertaken in darkness as enemy troops closed on him and a group of wounded men. The other side showed his stern picture above a quotation from the executive director of the Army Aviation Association of America: "You wonder what kind of a man it takes to do that."
Langhorn recalled a boy who gave her no trouble growing up, a young man who shoveled neighbors' snow in the winter and raked their leaves in the fall. Although he is buried in Riverhead, she has come to every Memorial Day service at Calverton to honor him, she said. Monday was Calverton's 36th service and it took eight hours for Langhorn to drive up from Mechanicsville, Virginia, with her daughter, Yvonne Langhorn Reid, 68.
"She's more at peace, now," Reid said of her mother. "It's not as emotional as it used to be."
A wreath was laid for Dennis Krulder, a Vietnam vet who organized a fleet of vans to transport as many as 1,000 veterans a week to treatment programs at Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Northport. He and his brothers -- John, Thomas and Joseph, also veterans -- were recalled as "the toughest boys in Wantagh" by one speaker.
The sun was scorching and when the ceremony broke, only a few guests lingered among 249,400 tiny American flags that mark the cemetery's graves. Ronald and Marion Gibson of East Patchogue stayed to pray at the graves of his parents, Elizabeth and Stewart Gibson, an Army veteran who served during World War II.
The younger Gibsons said they knew about a dozen veterans buried in Calverton and visit them all several times a year. "They had heart; they cared," said Ronald Gibson. "Without spirit, we're just dirt."