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Following the Memorial Day ceremony at the Eagle Point National Cemetery on Monday, Rebecca Walker of Rogue River visited the gravesite of her brother, who served during the Vietnam War. Mail Tribune Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

'Oregonians will never forget'

More than 2,000 people gathered on the green overlook of the Eagle Point National Cemetery late Memorial Day morning to pay homage to veterans buried there.

They represented a broad spectrum of society: World War II veterans with white hair to young men with buzz cuts not long home from Afghanistan or Iraq.

There was even a Vietnam War veteran wearing an American Indian headdress as a symbol of his heritage.

But they and their loved ones all cheered as one when keynote speaker U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., reminded them what brought them to the picturesque cemetery.

"Today is all about one special message: that is, on our watch, we Oregonians will never, ever forget those who wear the uniform of the United States of America," said Wyden, one of five speakers at the event.

"We want to remember those who came home, and we want to pay special tribute to those who didn't come home," he added.

"We want to remember the airplane crews, Marines, sailors, soldiers — all who put everything on the line for each and every one of us."

As he spoke, more than 120 U.S. flags donated by the families of veterans flew along the Avenue of the Flags behind the crowd. Small American flags decorated the nearly 14,000 graves at the cemetery, thanks to students from Scenic Middle School in Central Point.

There was also a fly-over of a pair of fighter jets, patriotic songs sung by St. Mary's High School students, a color guard and a bagpiper.

Wyden reminded the crowd that nearly 3,000 citizen-soldiers of the Oregon Army National Guard are preparing to deploy to Iraq. Those troops include a large contingent from Southern Oregon.

"We must keep those who are in harm's way and their families in our hearts and minds while we honor all of those who have already served our country," he said.

"Our nation stands on the shoulders of great men and women," he continued. "We are strong because they give us great strength. We are free because they have given us our freedom. Freedom just didn't happen by osmosis. It happened because of their courageous service."

Wyden also cited the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' Southern Oregon Rehabilitation Center and Clinics in White City and its director Max McIntosh for the care it is providing for veterans, both young and old.

"I want all of you to know that, at this time when the United States Congress is considering health-care reform legislation, it is critical that we give Dr. McIntosh and those who do such good work for our veterans more support," he said. "We need to give them more resources."

He vowed to fight for increased health benefits for veterans when that bill is considered.

"We will pay tribute to the sacrifices that have been made and take up their unfinished work," he promised veterans.

Jan Esquivel, the wife of state Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, who was unable to attend, told the gathering of state legislation pertaining to veterans, including a military family leave bill that would give family members up to a 14-day leave from his or her job to spend time with a loved one who is deploying or has just returned from a combat zone.

She also urged the crowd to get to know veterans in their midst.

"Take time to listen," she said. "Take time to write down what you remember from a family member or friends. These stories are part of our country's history ... take the time to teach your children and your children's children the history of this great nation."

Army veteran Lindee Lenox, director of the DVA's National Cemetery Administration field program services in Washington, D.C., noted each DVA cemetery houses countless stories of veterans. She has oversight of the department's 128 national cemeteries worldwide.

"For example, George Tweed is buried here," she said, referring to the former Grants Pass resident whose story is told in the book, "Robinson Crusoe USN."

The World War II Navy radioman, who died in 1989 at age 86, eluded Japanese forces on the Pacific island of Guam for 31 months beginning late in 1941. He provided valuable information to American forces that recaptured the island in 1944. In 1962, actor Jeffrey Hunter played Tweed in the movie, ''No Man is an Island.''

"Mr. Tweed didn't think of himself as a hero," she said. "He was just doing what he needed to do ... Every single man and woman buried in this cemetery who is being honored today has a story of his or her own."

Retired Navy commander John Howard observed that most veterans served their duty, then brought that work ethic home to civilian life. Most served with no fanfare, said Howard, who is a staff member for Oregon Second District congressman Greg Walden.

Noting his father was a WWII Navy veteran, Howard, a Navy veteran of Vietnam as well as Operation Desert Storm, observed that his son, Jamie, carried on that tradition as a veteran of the Army as well as the North Carolina Army National Guard. His son spent most of 2004 in Iraq.

Shortly after he was discharged, his son sent him an e-mail to thank him for giving him an opportunity to make a choice that has and will continue to define his life.

" 'I left active duty a decent human being rather than the selfish little 'snot' — he said a different word — that I was in college,' " his son wrote, Howard said.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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