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Remember the more recently fallen too, Marine general urges

May 28, 2012 |  2:37 pm

Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego
On a day set aside for the nation to remember the fallen of wars past, a Marine general Monday asked that the public also honor the families of current military personnel who have endured 10 years of war, separation and worry.

Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, in his keynote address to 2,000-plus people attending the 112th annual Memorial Service and Day of Remembrance at Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery in San Diego, said the public should remember those families who have lived through multiple deployments and "the fear of receiving a knock on the door with the worst of all news."

Heroism, Waldhauser added, is not a thing of the past. He noted the example of Marine Sgt. Joseph Wrightsman who died July 18, 2010, while trying to save an Afghan police officer who had slipped into the swift current of the Helmand River in Afghanistan.

When the Afghan officer slipped, Wrightsman unhesitatingly dived into the river in a rescue attempt, although laden with his full combat gear. The 23-year-old from Jonesboro, La., reached the flailing Afghan even as the current swept both down the river.

Although both died, Wrightsman's bravery and willingness to risk his life left a mark on the Afghans. The district governor, Haji Abdul Manaf, said at a memorial that "His dedication will stay forever in the history of Afghanistan," according to press accounts.

Waldhauser, commander of Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Central Command, recalled a quote from President Kennedy that praised those who serve in the U.S. military as the nation's best.

"I think President Kennedy would agree," he said, "that Sgt. Wrightsman was one of the best that this nation has to offer."

One of the nation's oldest and largest national cemeteries, Ft. Rosecrans is the final resting place for more than 100,000 military veterans and their family members, dating to the 19th century. Twenty-three Medal of Honor recipients are buried there, on the rolling hills of Point Loma. To the east is San Diego Bay; to the west, the Pacific Ocean.

Most of those buried at Ft. Rosecrans served honorably but without glory or notice.

"Here we are surrounded mostly by ordinary people who did what they were told because they trusted their nation," said the Rev. Babs Meairs, a Marine veteran, in her Memorial Day prayer.

Under a bright San Diego sun, the ceremony was a melding of the old and the new. Battlefield reenactors, who dress in the garb of the Revolutionary War and Civil War, were in the crowd.

So were representatives from numerous VFW posts, Pearl Harbor Survivors, Jewish War Veterans, veterans of the Vietnamese units that fought beside the United States, active-duty Navy SEALs between deployments to Afghanistan, and representatives of the Navajo code-talkers from World War II.

Daniel Hansen, an enlisted Marine, read Lincoln's Gettysburg's address. And Robert Carr, 68, read General Order 11 issued by Gen. John Logan in 1868 that established Decoration Day, the forerunner to Memorial Day. Initially, the day was to memorialize the Civil War dead.

"We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance," Carr intoned, reading the order. "All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds."

Some in the crowd at Ft. Rosecrans wore uniforms or medals or other insignia that showed they had served decades ago. A restored World War II fighter did a low-altitude flyover.

Marine Cpl. Cody Elliott, 22, from Pismo Beach, Calif., was in the crowd. He lost his left leg to a roadside bomb in Sangin, Afghanistan. Now he has a prosthetic and walks with a cane. He wore his dress blues.

"I'm just here to support my brothers who didn't come home," he said.

-- Tony Perry in San Diego

Photo: Ft. Rosecrans National Cemetery, San Diego. Credit: Allen Schaben / Los Angeles Times