By 11 a.m. one recent Wednesday, the sharp reports of rifle salutes rang out from different corners of Riverside National Cemetery.
Visitors clutching carnations and balloons dotted the hillsides, searching for the names of loved ones. Cars and hearses were lined three deep along LeMay Boulevard, waiting to head to one of the 22 services that day.
Riverside National Cemetery, a lush, rolling 921-acre expanse in the middle of scrubby hills, is the busiest national cemetery. Lately, it has been averaging 35 services a day.
At one of the 1970s-style wood-and-stone pavilions designated for interment ceremonies, the low and mournful notes of taps sounded over the casket of Marine veteran Thurman Adams, 54.
At another pavilion around the bend, the family mourning another retired Marine, Ismael Quezada, 79, recited the Lord’s Prayer.
Shortly after that, a bagpiper in a blue-and-orange kilt heralded the casket of Charles Cloud, 60, who served two tours with the Army in Vietnam.
The whole time, cemetery caretakers scooped out ocher earth with power shovels to make space for new crypts just beyond the lines of freshly laid sod. Later that afternoon, an Army private young enough to have been Quezada’s or Cloud’s grandson also would be buried.
Many families come to Riverside because of its location in the heart of a region that contains more than 1 million veterans, said Jim Ruester, the cemetery’s spokesman.
Other veterans cemeteries nearby have limited space, he added. Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood is officially closed for new interments and typically accepts only the remains of family members of those buried there.
Since Riverside opened in 1978 next to what is now March Air Reserve Base, the cemetery has laid to rest about 180,000 veterans and their family members. Ruester estimated that 500,000 people visit the cemetery a year, with about 20,000 paying their respects on Memorial Day, the most popular day of the year.
The brass-and-granite grave markers lie flat, disappearing into the thick fescue grass. Strings of markers for veterans who lived out long days in retirement are interspersed with those killed in action. They are buried without regard to rank.
Most of the veterans served in World War II or Korea, but there are a growing number of Vietnam War veterans, such as Cloud and Roger Parker, 59, who was buried at Riverside two days earlier.
Parker’s sister, Mary Parker Killin, said her brother was wounded in a mortar attack and eventually died from complications from those injuries. Echoing the sentiments of many other family members, Killin said she couldn’t think of burying her brother anywhere else.
“I know my brother would really like it,” she said. “He belongs, as he says, with his boys.”
Sadness prevails at any funeral, of course, but the pain seems exceptionally raw at the services for the young. Sixty-three of the newest markers at Riverside are for service members killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
At 1:30 p.m. this day, it was time to say farewell to Army Pfc. Aaron Joseph Ward, 19.
Ward, from San Jacinto, was killed by small-arms fire May 6 when his military police company was cordoning off and searching an area in Iraq’s Anbar province.
The white hearse bearing his coffin arrived at the cemetery followed by an SUV bearing the words, “Honk 4 Fallen Soldier.”
A group of Patriot Guard Riders, a veterans group that often escorts the caskets of those killed in action, stood at attention as members of the California Army National Guard escorted the flag-draped wooden casket into a pavilion overlooking a lake.
Ward’s mother, Debra Ward, could not keep her eyes off the casket as she settled into the front row with Ward’s father, Paul, and the young man’s grandparents and sister.
Debra and Paul Ward, who recently filed for divorce, held hands through the service.
More than 100 friends, relatives and veterans filled up the rest of the benches and flowed out onto the patio. Many wore ribbons in purple and orange, Ward’s favorite colors.
Brig. Gen. Dana Pittard from Fort Irwin bent on one knee and presented the Wards with their son’s three medals, including the Bronze Star.
The three volleys fired by the honor guard made Debra Ward jump and then break into tears. While the bugler played taps, a dozen family members and friends who had served or were serving with the military saluted, their hands strong and still at their foreheads.
As the six-person honor guard moved their arms precisely together to lift the flag off the casket and fold it into a tight triangle, Paul Ward stared straight ahead, barely blinking.
Earl Chapin, a service director at Miller-Jones Mortuary, closed the service by saying, “This is a place of honor. Remember you know someone buried at Riverside and why they’re here.”
The honor guard and the presence of the Patriot Guard Riders touched Gary Tolle, Ward’s uncle and a Navy veteran.
“Joining the military is a choice,” said Tolle, 38, after the ceremony. “For an 18-year-old to chose to fight for his country is very honorable. . . . I just wanted to salute my nephew one last time.”
The honor guard returned the casket to the hearse, and a dozen or so close family members headed for Section 50, Site 1208. They stood about 10 feet away from the rectangular hole, clinging to one another behind a chain barrier.
Five small flags fluttered on the headstones nearby, marking other young men killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 2:30 p.m., the cemetery caretaker soundlessly lowered the casket into the ground. When the family members were allowed to approach, they took turns dropping roses and carnations into the grave. Debra Ward’s voice was uneven as she told her son, “I love you.”
The last service of the day took place just after 3 p.m., when the cemetery honors veterans who are indigent or have no family to attend the ceremony. The National Guard team that had sent off Ward soberly now accompanied the cremated remains of Charles P. Barnett Jr., 87, John Louis Hosey, 69, and Henry Linkiewicz, 82, to another pavilion.
The military honors that had played out earlier this day were repeated one last time. A cemetery representative accepted the folded flag on behalf of the families.
The only visitor present was Richard Blackaby, a 59-year-old Army veteran who proudly wears a 4th Infantry Division baseball cap and drives a car emblazoned with the names of the eight members of his family currently serving in the military.
Blackaby, who manages a self-storage unit nearby, said he comes to these services practically every day on his lunch break.
“Because the family members are not showing up, I feel somebody needs to honor these veterans,” Blackaby said.
By 4 p.m., the cemetery caretakers were finishing up the final tasks for the day.
One of the caretakers, who served in Afghanistan in the 1970s, rolled three pieces of sod over Aaron Ward’s grave.
He cut a rectangle into the grass and peeled it up to reveal Ward’s headstone.
A colleague swept dirt off the marker with a broom.
These words became clear: “Take Care of Our Son.”