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Long Islanders honor fallen on Memorial Day

Robert Harding, 84, an original Montford Point Marine,

Robert Harding, 84, an original Montford Point Marine, gets a kiss from his granddaughter Pfc. Brittney McKenzie during Memorial Day ceremonies in Roosevelt. He received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor, at the event. (May 27, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / Audrey C. Tiernan

Parades filled Long Island streets, a giant American flag was unfurled next to a World War II aircraft carrier on the Hudson and thousands stood silently in solemn ceremony at Calverton National Cemetery to mark Memorial Day.

In Long Beach, where officials say up to a third of residents and many businesses have yet to return after the city was brought to its knees seven months ago by superstorm Sandy, the day also marked a step toward recovery.

"The city is back," said chief of lifeguards Paul Gillespie. "There's still work to be done, but people are going to be coming here from all over Long Island."

For Joe Schutta, 33, a New York City firefighter and Marine reservist who served tours in Iraq from 2003-2006, the day was "bittersweet."

He and his wife, Brittany, 26, were back in their once-storm-damaged house in Long Beach; their daughter, Vivian, was celebrating her first birthday, and they have a summer's worth of beach days lying ahead of them.

But he'd fought alongside men and women who'd never enjoy those simple pleasures again. "There are people who got hurt, people who can't celebrate, people who never came home," he said.

Pfc. William Wagner was one of those who never came home.

Rosemary Wagner, his mother, rode in the city's Memorial Day parade in a silver convertible with a gold-starred service banner that symbolized his life. "He was lost Dec. 6, 1968, in Vietnam," she said. "You never forget."

On a day dedicated to the war dead, the living were also honored.

In Roosevelt, Robert Harding, 84, one of the country's first black Marines, served as parade grand marshal and on Monday received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation's highest civilian honor given by Congress.

He and other members of the first generation of black Marines are known as Montford Point Marines, after the segregated facility in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where about 20,000 trained between 1942 and 1949, according to the Montford Point Marine Association.

The Montford Point Marines had received the medal in Washington, D.C., last year, but Harding was too ill to make the trip, relatives said.

Harding's daughter, Carolyn Harding, and granddaughter U.S. Army Pfc. Brittany Mckenzie attended the ceremony with him. "She'll be shipping out to Afghanistan on June 4," Carolyn Harding said. "That's really nerve-wracking to me. I have to hold onto my faith that God will cover her every step of the way. I'm so proud she's chosen to follow my father."

In Mastic Beach, Anthony Karabaich, 75, who has attended the Memorial Day parade for at least 40 years, played "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful" and the national anthem on his harmonica.

William Ladolcetta, 15, a ninth-grader at William Floyd High School, was marching in one of his first with the high school's Navy JROTC, with mother Sharon Rodriguez filming. "He wants to become a Marine," she said, "so it's a good start for him."

At a ceremony at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the decommissioned aircraft carrier moored off midtown Manhattan, four wreaths were laid onto the Hudson River and a 100-foot-long flag was unfurled with a rifle salute. "Taps" followed and Army Capt. Maxine Shillingford of Westchester, a nurse, remembered all the times she'd heard it before.

"It all came back to me, all the sacrifices of my fellow comrades," she said. "It reminded me of the lives that were in front of me that I had to get home. I hear 'Taps' and its evokes every one of those memories."

At Agawam Park in Southampton Village, Betsy Kelly of the Southampton Ladies Auxiliary sold red poppies to raise money for veterans and their families. A chaplain said a prayer and wreaths were laid at the village's war memorials. The American flag was raised and lowered, and riflemen fired a salute.

Village Mayor Mark Epley, who served in the Navy for almost nine years, asked residents to remember Army Staff Sgt. James L. Pettaway Jr., 37, and Army Sgt. 1st Class Schuyler Haynes, 40, who had ties to the village and were killed in Iraq, as well as the "tens of thousands who died for our country."

At Calverton National Cemetery, where 237,222 veterans, their spouses and children had been interred as of last week, Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) hailed veterans who were "willing to put themselves on the line" for the country.

Cemetery director Michael Picerno told the crowd of nearly 1,500 that since 2001, 77 active duty military members with an average age of 27 have been interred there. "Think about that," he said. "That is the real meaning of Memorial Day, the real cost of war."

Dina McKenna, whose husband, Army Sgt. William McKenna, died in 2010 at 41, said that Calverton had become a sanctuary.

"It's not just a place for remembrance, it's a place to escape reality," said McKenna, of Lindenhurst, who wore her husband's dog tags Monday and spoke to the audience.

McKenna said Memorial Day was a rare holiday she could look forward to, flanked by her daughters Katelynn, 15, and Sabrina, 8.

Memorial Day, she said, "is a day when people pay tribute to him."

Calverton, she said, is a place where the girls can take Jelly Belly's and Swedish Fish, her father's favorite candies, to his grave.

"But not the popcorn ones," Sabrina said. Kaitlynn said her dad was always trying to pass those off to Sabrina.

William McKenna died in December, 2010, after serving two tours in Iraq. He served near a burn pit, where he was exposed to toxic chemicals. He was later diagnosed with lymphoma.

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