Reflections of proud past

As a vocalist sang the final measures of the National Anthem, white doves were released and soared in unison over the grounds of the Pacific View Memorial Park.

The 53rd annual Memorial Day Service in Newport Beach Monday gave hundreds of visitors a chance to reflect and honor those who have died serving the U.S. military.

The American Legion Newport Harbor Post 291 presented the service, which included musical tributes, speeches, a floral dedication and a traditional rifle salute.

Paula Burton was a little girl in the Netherlands when the Allied forces liberated the country from German occupation in 1945. Now a proud U.S. citizen, she founded the Villa Park-based musical group Celebration USA to honor American values.

Decked out in sequined red, white and blue uniforms, kids in Celebration USA sang a medley of the five military branches' fight songs while veterans of each branch stood to be recognized by the crowd.

"Freedom is a gift we can't see," Burton said. "It's not tangible, but freedom lives in our hearts."

Lt. Col Benjamin Watson, a commanding officer in the U.S. Marine Corps, said the true purpose of Memorial Day is to honor the sacrifice of American military forces who have died serving the country.

He discussed the freedoms that most people had taken advantage of that weekend, including the freedom to assemble, speak freely and choose whether or not to practice religion.

"These freedoms are not universal and they come at a cost," Watson said.

Watson told the audience that as they enjoyed the sunny day, there were men and women overseas doing the "dirty, violent and dangerous work that great nations require."

Watson also told stories about the change he saw in Afghanistan's Helmand province, noting that since American troops arrived, thousands of children were attending school for the first time ever, the Taliban had fled and the people were being represented by their government.

"Where Americans go, where Americans fight and where Americans stay, Americans succeed," Watson said.

Watson read the names of 14 officers in his battalion killed in the last year.

The service also included an emotional reading of General Order No. 11, which John A. Logan ordered in 1868. The document designated the first-ever Memorial Day as a time to decorate soldiers' graves with flowers and pay respect.

The tone was both celebratory and somber Monday as families waved flags, noshed on hot dogs and paused at grave sites. But the meaning of the day was not lost on visitors or participants.

Watson asked people to take a moment to say a silent prayer for those who lost their lives in battles through history, in places from Normandy to Korea to Vietnam.

"They are my heroes, and they are what today is truly about," he said.

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