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A profoundly personal Memorial Day for families of war dead

The first thing William McNaughton does when he gets to work most mornings at Calverton National Cemetery, where he is a part-time groundskeeper, is visit the grave of his son, Staff Sgt. James D. McNaughton, 27, a former New York City cop and Army reservist who was killed by a sniper in Baghdad on Aug. 2, 2005.

It's been eight years now, and each day for McNaughton is Memorial Day. At the grave, McNaughton always does the same thing. "I rub my hand over his name," he said.

Americans have honored their war dead with Memorial Day ceremonies since the late 19th century. What began with the simple laying of flowers on Civil War graves has expanded to honor those who have died in all American wars.

For many, the holiday is the unofficial start of summer, a day of barbecues and beer and freedom from work.

For McNaughton, 57, and the families of the 129 service members from Long Island and New York City killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can never be just that. To them, Memorial Day is profoundly personal.

Four-day observance

For McNaughton's wife, Michele McNaughton, Monday is the culmination of four days of observance. She is president of the North Fork chapter of American Gold Star Mothers, a group that supports grieving military families and provides services to wounded soldiers.

Friday was a ceremony at the Northport Veterans Administration Medical Center. Saturday was reserved for Calverton and for the placing of the flags on scores of headstones, and also for the Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer Memorial Run Walk in East Northport. Scherer, a Northport native, was a Marine killed by a sniper in Iraq on July 21, 2007. He was 21.

Sunday was reserved for a ceremony at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, and a parade in Centereach, where she and her husband live. Monday, there is a speaking engagement at Calverton and the solemn reading of names of the dead from Vietnam and the Iran-Afghanistan wars at the Vietnam Memorial on Bald Hill in Farmingville.

When her son was alive, it was different: "We spent Memorial Day like every other American," she said. "It was the start of barbecue season."

She doesn't expect her neighbors to adopt her schedule. "Just because my son was killed, and other sons and daughters were killed, doesn't mean the world should stop," she said. "I would just like to see you take that five minutes out and be thankful that you can have that barbecue."

Emily Toro, 53, of the Bronx, spent Memorial Day weekend in Washington, visiting monuments and cemeteries, as she does most years. She started making the five-hour bus trip after her son, Army Pvt. Isaac Cortes, 26, was killed by a roadside bomb in the Iraqi village of Amerli on Nov. 27, 2007.

"Losing Isaac opened up another world to me," she said. "I understand what this day means."

On these trips she lays as many wreaths as she can on the graves of men she never knew, and she talks to as many people as she can.

Sometimes she tells them she, too, is a Gold Star mother, a description that evokes history and extraordinary loss. The name originated from the World War I-era practice of hanging a starred banner in the home window to signify military service of a family member. A gold star represented a family member who was killed in combat.

Many of the people Toro meets have no idea what the gold star signifies. "The first reaction I get is, 'Oh, that's nice,' " she said. "Right then I know they don't understand what it means. They're grateful when I explain it to them."

'Finding the commonality'

On Shelter Island, Chrystyna Kestler, 56, will start her day laying a wreath of remembrance at a dock. Then she will attend a Memorial Day Mass at Our Lady of the Isle Cemetery, followed by a parade and the Lion's Club cookout.

Her son, Army 1st Lt. Joseph Theinert, 24, was buried at that cemetery after his death on June 4, 2010, after stepping on a bomb in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan. He was the first soldier from Shelter Island to be killed in action since 1967.

Even on a day that highlights her role in a small community as the mother of a service member who died in action, she said she felt more in common with her neighbors than not. "Maybe it's because Shelter Island is so small, but you hear all about the services that people do," she said. "It's military service, fire department, police department, or just the way they give back to the community. I'm a big believer in finding the commonality, not the differences."

Closer significance

For William McNaughton, who served five years in the Army and then made a career as a New York City cop, the differences are hard to ignore.

Fewer than one in 10 Americans has served in the military, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most Americans don't even know anybody who serves, McNaughton said. They don't even hang a flag on Memorial Day.

They don't know, as he will never forget, what it's like to watch "that Army colonel walking out of that car" to knock on your front door with the worst news in the world.

War, he said, "is a distant thing for them," and their understanding of Memorial Day's significance is vague.

Not for him. "I know exactly what it means."

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