Memorial Day weekend capped by tributes to soldiers, barbecues and beaches
By KAREN MATTHEWSAssociated Press WriterNEW YORK – Veterans and active soldiers unfurled a 90-by-100-foot U.S. flag as the nation’s top commander in the Middle East spoke to a Memorial Day crowd gathered in Central Park on Monday.Navy Adm. William Fallon, commander of U.S. Central Command, said America should remember those whom the holiday honors. “Their sacrifice has enabled us to enjoy the things that we, I think in many cases, take for granted,” Fallon said.Across the nation, flags snapped in the wind over decorated gravestones as relatives and friends paid tribute to their fallen soldiers.Millions more kicked off summer with trips to beaches or their backyard grills.AAA estimated 38 million Americans would travel 50 miles or more during the weekend – up 1.7 percent from last year – even with gas averaging $3.20 a gallon for self-service regular.In the nation’s capital, thousands of motorcycles driven by military veterans and their loved ones roared through Washington, D.C., to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It was the 20th year the group, Rolling Thunder, has taken to the streets there in support of U.S. military members past and present.President Bush spoke at nearby Arlington National Cemetery, honoring U.S. troops who have fought and died for freedom and expressing his resolve to succeed in the war in Iraq.”From their deaths must come a world where the cruel dreams of tyrants and terrorists are frustrated and foiled – where our nation is more secure from attack, and where the gift of liberty is secured for millions who have never known it,” the president said.Helen Velasquez stood over her husband’s grave in Farmington, N.M., and said he never second guessed his decision to enlist in the Marines. Frank Velasquez, 47, was disabled and died in March.”I think a lot of people don’t think of it until someone they love passes away,” she said. “Sometimes I feel they’re forgotten. I want them to know they’re never forgotten.”In Kansas City, Brig. Gen. Larry D. Kay, the Missouri National Guard’s assistant adjutant general, told a crowd at the nation’s largest World War I monument about his grandfather.Kay’s mother saw the World War I veteran crying when she arrived home on Dec. 7, 1941, the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. “He just said, ‘The boys. All the boys,”‘ Kay told the crowd.At Fort Bragg, N.C., the commanding general of the Army’s Green Berets said the troops who have died around the world were “soldiers we could count on when the going got tough.” Thirteen Green Berets who died during the past year were honored as were 109 former Green Berets who died during the period.”We always could count on our Special Forces brothers to be there with us, regardless of the odds against us,” Maj. Gen. Thomas R. Csrnko said at a ceremony at the headquarters of the Army’s Special Forces Command.At a Memorial Day ceremony at the Kansas Statehouse, Cindy Butler placed a rose beneath the state’s official wreath in honor of her son, Sgt. Jacob Butler, the first Kansas resident and first Fort Riley soldier killed in Iraq. She was joined by Joe, Jacob’s twin brother.Jim Butler smiled thinking about his son. He said he thinks of “Jake” every day, dedicating one wall and the better part of a second to his memory at his home in Wellsville.”I wake up and say, ‘Good morning, Jake, have a great day,’ and say ‘Good night, see you in the morning,’ before I go to bed,” the elder Butler said.Elsewhere, Alabama’s Gulf Coast was once again packed with holidaygoers after the damage from hurricanes Ivan in 2004 and Katrina in 2005 kept the tourists away.”It couldn’t have been better – use all the superlatives you want,” said Johnny Fisher, general manager of Lucy Buffett’s Lulu’s at Homeport Marina in Gulf Shores. “It was all perfect.”—Associated Press writers Heather Hollingsworth in Kansas City, Mo. and John Milburn in Kansas contributed to this report.