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South Florida veterans: Memorial Day is a day to mourn, not celebrate

Memorial Day was established in 1868 to honor Civil War soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Originally called Decoration Day, for the tradition of decorating graves of the fallen with flowers, it became a national holiday in 1971, observed annually on the last Monday in May.

As 90-year-old Daniel Raines ponders the 900-per-day death rate of his fellow World War II veterans, some close friends, he laments the holiday’s drift from its intended focus to one of bargain shopping and revelry.

“A lot of people think of Memorial Day as a celebration, but there is sadness, too,’’ said Raines, a resident of the Miami Veteran’s Administration Medical Center’s Community Living Center. “You mourn; you don’t celebrate.’’

Raines, formerly of Plantation — by way of a food-service career on Long Island — enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

He served stateside with the Signal Corps and received a medical discharge in 1943 after a serious on-base accident, but feels part of his generation’s profound sacrifice: an estimated 417,000 Americans in combat.

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Honor Flight Network — a nonprofit that flies veterans free of charge to see the national war memorials — Raines found himself gazing at the Iwo Jima statue.

“The hair on the back of my head stood up and I cried,’’ he said. “It made a very big impression on me because so many didn’t come home. . . . I felt I was part of that.’’

Quiet reflection

On Memorial Day, Richard Luis Melendez won’t be celebrating either. He’ll have a quiet picnic with his family, avoid loud fireworks — he saw too many real explosions in Afghanistan — and think about Cpl. Travis Woods.

Woods, of Redding, Calif., assigned to the 1st Marine Special Operations Battalion, Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command, was killed in action on Sept. 9, 2007, in Afghanistan. So far, about 6,500 American troops have died in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Melendez, of Miramar, didn’t know Woods well, but as the U.S. Army combat engineer who outfitted him for battle in deadly Helmand Province, he was among the last to see Woods alive.

Melendez and fellow Sgt. Nelson Mendoza, his South Florida “battle buddy,’’ met Woods at Forward Operating Base Robinson, after a Chinook helicopter dropped him off.

“We got him all his gear,’’ said Melendez. “He lasted two weeks. He was 21 years old.’’

Melendez, a 36-year-old VA hospital customer-service representative and a father of three, was inspired to enlist after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He survived eight firefights and countless rocket-propelled grenade and mortar attacks, one of which left his pal Mendoza with a traumatic brain injury.

He remembers the memorial service for Cpl. Woods in Kandahar.

“They played his music really loud. His eulogy card stated he wanted ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ ’’ — the Guns N’ Roses version.

Melendez begins to tear up. “People don’t realize what an impact it has on other soldiers.’’

Col. Connie Christensen, U.S. Army retired, will spend the holiday in the nation’s capital. As president of Vietnam Veterans of America Inc.’s Broward County Chapter, she’s there often on official business.

An operating-room nurse in South Vietnamese combat zones in 1970 and ’71 — where her father, the late U.S. Navy Capt. Cyrus Christensen, was also serving — she watched young soldiers die nearly every day, and she’ll think of them as she attends the National Memorial Day Concert on Sunday evening.

But she’ll recall one in particular.

“His squad had left him in the field,’’ said Christensen, 64, who joined the Army at age 19 and served 34 years. “He wouldn’t let them pick him up because it would make too much noise,’’ which would have given away their position. “He told them to come back later.”

By the time they did, he was “pale as a ghost’’ from blood loss.

“He asked if I would keep his rosary,’’ said Christensen, now a nurse anesthetist. “And he died on the operating table,’’ one of nearly 58,200 U.S. fighters lost in the war.

Jim Ellerd, a Texas-born retired commercial pilot from North Miami, said he lost a lot of friends’ during two tours in Vietnam with the Air Force.

As Memorial Day approached, he reminisced about three lost friends: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Zane Carter, 36, and Capts. Alan Hendrickson and John Wiley, both 31.

On Aug. 3, 1967, their C-7A Caribou was shot down by friendly fire. He’d just helped them load their plane with ammunition.

“We’d share C-rations and stories,’’ said Ellerd, who was 19 when his friends died. “They were real nice folks. . . . I’ll never forget those guys; it doesn’t matter what day of the week it is. ‘’

Like many Vietnam vets, Ellerd suffered Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and feelings of guilt that “I came back and a lot of guys didn’t.’’

He said he talks to his grandchildren about the real meaning of Memorial Day, because “they don’t teach it in the schools.’’

Once the occasion for patriotic parades, the sale of artificial poppies as a fund-raiser for veterans, or for Scout troops to place small flags on military graves, Memorial Day’s traditions have faded, acknowledges W. Joe Gault, Department Adjutant Quartermaster of the Florida Veterans of Foreign Wars.

“I remember the parades and flag waving and how it meant so much more than it appears now,’’ the Vietnam veteran said. “But I see a resurgence of patriotism since the Gulf War, and I would hope it would continue so we don’t lose sight of the people who died for us and our freedoms here and around the world.’’

Monday’s celebrations should be more than that.

“We need to look at the remembrance,’’ said Gault. “The reason we raise the flag back up at noon’’ at Veterans of Foreign War observances “is to remember those still serving. We take this holiday very seriously.”

‘If it helps . . .’

But WWII Air Force photographer Sol Tappan, a veteran of 51combat missions, doesn’t see anything wrong with using Memorial Day as the catalyst for partying and spending.

“It brings money back into the economy,’’ said Tappan, 89, a Brooklyn native who also lives at the Community Living Center. “It puts people back to work. If it helps the country, fine, there’s a reason for it.’’

Tappan, who served in North Africa, Italy, and Palestine — Israel, after 1948 — said he participated in clandestine operations with the Office of Strategic Services.

He still won’t talk about specifics, but says he suffered flash blindness when “a rocket blew up in my face,’’ and was given a medical discharge in 1945 for “combat fatigue.’’ He’s no longer able to walk, and can barely see.

“But I’m a stubborn bastard,’’ he said. “I’d go back in a second to defend the country.’’

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