This story was reported by Grant Parpan, Jean-Paul Salamanca and Dandan Zou. It was written by Michael O'Keeffe.
American flags waved in a light breeze and patriotic music soared in hamlets and towns on a sunny Memorial Day across Long Island as proud residents marched in parades and visited cemeteries to honor the men and women who died while serving in the military.
About 400 guests attended Monday’s ceremony at Calverton National Cemetery, including representatives from each branch of the military and Rep. Nick LaLota (R-Amityville), a Navy veteran. The congressman shared the stories of three fallen Navy veterans, including Medal of Honor recipient Michael Murphy of Patchogue.
“It is so true that we are the land of the free because of the brave,” LaLota told the crowd. “Sometimes it's difficult to find the words to describe the selfless sacrifice that so many men and women have made for our way of life.”
Thousands more visited the cemetery over the weekend, said Anne Ellis, the cemetery's executive director. While it's difficult to quantify how many visitors passed through the gates in recent days, she said more than 290,000 veterans and eligible family members are buried there.
"Every one of them is important," Ellis said.
Gold Star Mother Cyndi Ventura, formerly of Holtsville, drove from her new home in South Carolina to emcee Monday’s service. She joined fellow Gold Star Mother Margie Miller of East Islip to read a poem for the fallen at the 900-acre site where their sons are buried.
“One day a year I get to share my son [Jerome] with the country, a grateful nation,” she said after the ceremony. “I can't say it lessens my loss, but it warms my heart. It truly does.”
Richard O’Brien, 78, of Bellport, a Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, said the cemetery is the final resting place for more than a dozen family members and friends. He visited the cemetery Monday with other members of the Suffolk County Chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.
“Most of the people that are here will have a connection to a veteran,” O’Brien said.
Tom Murphy, attending the annual Riverhead Memorial Day parade with his wife, Maureen, daughter Kate and granddaughter Sophie, said each passing decade has brought him closer to the true meaning of the somber day.
“As I’ve gotten older though I’ve found myself really thanking the people who have served,” said Murphy, whose three-generation viewing party also included Maureen’s sister, Terry Messina, and her husband, Sal. “Some of these people didn’t make it home.”
About 20 community organizations participated in the parade organized by local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts. The route runs several miles from downtown Riverhead to Polish Town, making stops at war memorials and burial sites, including Riverhead Cemetery, the final resting place of Medal of Honor recipient Garfield Langhorn.
“I always say it’s bittersweet,” said American Legion Commander Martin Steiger. “It’s all about remembering the veterans who died and paying tribute to them. But it’s also a happy occasion in how many people come out to celebrate them. Riverhead is a very patriotic place.”
The first stop along the route was at the Riverhead World War I Memorial on the grounds of the Suffolk County Historical Society. The memorial was dedicated in 1920 by Oyster Bay native Theodore Roosevelt Jr., son of the former president and a veteran of World War I. He later became the oldest deployed United States service member when he served as a general during World War II, VFW commander Tom Najdzion noted. He never made it home.
Members of the veteran groups placed wreaths at each stop along the way, as Najdzion shared remarks and the Riverhead High School marching band played patriotic songs. Also marching in the parade were town officials, Patriot Guard riders, the Riverhead NJROTC, local scouts and first responders.
“It’s all about patriotism, to remember our fallen and to do everything we can to keep this tradition going, especially with the young [marchers] in the back of the parade line,” Najdzion said.
The Murphy and Messina families said they’ve seen a lot of change in Riverhead in their lifetimes, but it’s heartwarming to see hundreds of residents come out to remember the lives lost.
“It’s good to see people still believe in America,” Sal Messina said.
In Great Neck, Terry Bai carried a miniature American flag as he marched on Middle Neck Road in that community's 97th annual Memorial Day parade. But he said the tiny flag came with heavy symbolism.
“We are all here cheering for the flag,” said Bai, a member of the Great Neck Chinese Association. “Even though I only have a tiny flag in my hand, somehow this feels a lot heavier.”
Bai’s daughter, Maureen Bai, 13, and her friends, Rebecca Xu, 14, and Keshin Huang, 14 — all middle schoolers in the Great Neck school district — said their favorite part of the parade was greeting the cheering crowds that lined the street and feeling they belonged to something greater.
“You feel like part of a community,” Huang said.
Julia Lopez walked with her mother, Cecilia, and other congregants of St. Aloysius Roman Catholic Church in the parade — something she’s come to appreciate more since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This doesn't happen as much after COVID, you know, because everyone has their own thing,” Lopez said at the Village Green where the parade ended. “So it's good to come together and just be part of something.”
Johanna Essex has seen almost every Great Neck parade since her family moved there in 1944. She participated in the parade as a Girl Scout in 1945 and has only missed one year. She and her husband Harold stationed themselves near the end of the parade route on Middle Neck Road. They were there to cheer on members from the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, where Harold graduated in 1954.
They were also there to remember. “We have to remember those who are no longer here, and because of them, we're here,” Johanna Essex said.
In Coram, Keith Wesley of Port Jefferson said Memorial Day has a special meaning for his family.
“We’re a big fireman family," Wesley said outside the chapel of the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, where a Mass was celebrated to honor Long Island families who have lost loved ones who served in the military.
"We’re all volunteer firemen since 1988, so [Memorial Day] always meant something, having the flag up and wearing the flag," Wesley added.
Wesley’s father, William Wesley, had served as a private in the U.S. Army for two years during the 1960s. William Wesley had died two weeks before the service, according to Keith Wesley.
Rev. Cornelius Dery, speaking to about 30 people who attended the service, praised the families who lost loved ones in service of their country.
“On such a day when we remember all the gallant men and women who are buried here in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery,” Dery said, “... we celebrate the lives of heroes who lived their lives not for themselves, but for other people.”
Dery said those who served in the Armed Forces understood the meaning of sacrifice and “understood that there is something bigger than you and me...”