As people prepare this weekend for barbecues or trips to Sedona, one Ahwatukee group of men and women will be readying to observe the true meaning of Memorial Day – honoring their brothers and sisters in arms who made the supreme sacrifice for their country.
American Legion Post 64’s color guard and other members will be participating in a solemn and inspirational service at 8 a.m. Monday at the National Cemetery of Arizona, 23029 North Cave Creek Road, Cave Creek.
The 225-acre site is the final resting place for more than 78,000 veterans and their relatives.
Post 64, the only military service organization based in Ahwatukee, counts a little less than 200 former members of all branches of the U.S. military among its members.
“To preserve the memories and honor the sacrifices of those who paid the ultimate price while serving their country, Ahwatukee American Legion Post 64 is dedicated to providing and supporting remembrance services and ceremonies,” said Brenda Smull, the post’s public information officer.
And when it comes to next Monday, she added, nothing should take precedence over the reason why Memorial Day was created in the first place.
“The Memorial Day ceremonies are a very important and respected tradition for veterans and their families across the country and include the presentation of the flag, slow salutes and the playing of taps,” she said, noting some services also include prayers, a reading of names, ringing of bells and the lighting of candles.
Smull was an Army officer and was deployed as a platoon leader during Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and had been stationed at Fort Hood Texas with the 1st Cavalry Division.
She said the post for the past few months has been remembering and recognizing veterans who both died in war or served their country and have since passed way.
On March 15, members of the post marked the 100th anniversary of the American Legion’s founding with a special meeting dedicated to the 1,194 crew members of the USS Indianapolis CA-35, which was torpedoed on July 30, 1945.
Post member John Boyer “gave an educational and moving presentation about the disaster, the victims and the 316 survivors,” said Smull.
It was personal to Boyer: his cousin, Lloyd Peter Barto, was one of the crew rescued after four days in the shark-infested waters of the Philippine Sea after the ship had been hit.
Last week, Post 64 honored and remembered 45 members who have passed away. A special prayer service was led by Post Chaplain Rebecca Schmidt.
Such remembrances are organized and carried out under one of the American Legion’s mantras: Never Forget.
And on Monday, that will culminate “when Post 64 will join over 20 color and honor guards from across Arizona to pass in review at the Parade of Colors,” Smull said.
The Ahwatukee post join others to place over 100 wreaths at the cemetery.
The Cave Creek cemetery is one of 144 national cemeteries maintained by the Veterans Administration across the country and in Mexico. The first was established in Mexico City in 1850 to honor U.S. troops who had died in the Mexican War, according to a history of veterans cemeteries published by the VA.
In 1862, Congress passed the first legislation creating the concept of a national cemetery for the remains of Union soldiers, who until then were being buried in haphazard fashion at Army posts, family plots — or where they were killed in battle.
Congress passed the National Cemetery Act of 1867 and in the 1870s amended it several times to accommodate the needs of aging Union Civil War veterans.
“The 1870s marked a significant period of change for national cemeteries,” the VA account states. “Not only were 47 new national cemeteries established during this period, improvements were made to the existing properties that cemented their permanence in America’s cultural landscape.
“Make-shift burial grounds created in haste of war were supplanted by conscientious planning that created reverent national cemeteries. One major change was the replacement of original wooden headboards with permanent and durable marble headstones.”
The National Cemetery in Arizona was approved by the Legislature and the late Gov. Raul Castro in 1976 and dedicated on Dec. 9, 1978. The first interment occurred three months later.
It was handed over in 1989 to the VA, which has spent more than $13 million on various improvements, including three committal shelters, a maintenance building, visitor center, founders plaza, assembly area, columbaria and extensive landscaping.
It is so vast that it is not expected to reach capacity until at least 2030.
As Smull put it, “Think of it as the Arlington of the desert.”