The weather was warm and sunny with a soft breeze, a perfect day to head to the beach, fire up the grill or hit the outlet sales. But for Rafael Vila, the only destination that made sense Monday was the flag-dappled lawn of Los Angeles National Cemetery.
"I don't know if there's any place else I'd rather be than honoring people who served," said Vila, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran from Long Beach. With graves stretching in perfect lines behind him, he said the sacrifice of the military made possible the freedoms Americans love.
"They are the reason people are able to go shopping at the mall today," Vila said.
Vila and his wife, Angelica, were among hundreds who gathered at the cemetery Monday morning for a ceremony featuring music, prayer, reenactors on horseback and a salute to the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-African American World War II flying squadron that paved the way for military integration. Eight members of the group, including Walter Crenshaw, a 106-year-old believed to be the oldest living Tuskegee Airman, attended and received a standing ovation.
The crowd was enthusiastic, but many said it should have been larger, especially given the number of Americans currently deployed abroad. More than 88,000 veterans and family members are buried on the 114-acre Westwood property, which opened in 1889.
"God bless you for taking the time to be here," the keynote speaker, retired Army Lt. General Rick Lynch, told the gathering. Lynch, whose four-decade military career included commanding 25,000 in the Iraqi surge, said he starts every morning in prayer for the 153 of his troops killed in that campaign.
"I believe that every day should be Memorial Day," he said. He contrasted those present with others spending the holiday "hanging out in some barbecue or beer joint" and noted a recent poll that found that more than three-quarters of Americans admitted not understanding the challenges facing veterans.
"So 75% of the public is just walking around oblivious. They are just enjoying the freedom we provided them and that ain't right," Lynch said, urging the crowd to spread the holiday's true meaning to "those folks who didn't make time to be here."
In her invocation, Mindie Snyder, a rabbi in Flagstaff, Ariz., whose father was permanently disabled while serving in the Army, described the cemetery as the home of "80,000 stories of bravery" and asked those gathered to join her in a vow of remembrance.
"As long as we live, they too shall live as…" she began.
"We remember them," the crowd responded. One man in a row of veterans lifted his sunglasses to wipe away tears.
David Houck, who lives near the Westwood cemetery, brought his 6-year-old son, David Jr., and a large American flag. He said they have attended every year of the boy's life. Beyond the attractions to a youngster — weapons displays, cannons, plane flyovers and uniforms — Houck said the day held important lessons.
"I have a great deal of respect for our freedoms, and I want to teach those values to my son," Houck said.
Ray Polo of Torrance said he hoped visiting the cemetery would help his 6-year-old son, Lucas, better understand what he'd learned about the holiday in kindergarten.
"There's so many distractions," Polo said. "What you hear on TV [about Memorial Day] -- it's all about sale this, sale that." Gesturing toward the acres of gravestones and waving flags, he said, "When he saw this, he said, 'That's a lot of flags, Dad,' and I said, 'Yep. That's what it takes.' "