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Memorial Day: A debt that 'can never be repaid'

The nearly 17,000 veterans and their loved ones resting in the Eagle Point National Cemetery were not forgotten Monday.

An overflow crowd gathered to salute them during the annual Memorial Day ceremony held under a blue sky with cotton-white clouds floating past in review.

"We are all gathered in this beautiful spot because we understand we owe a great debt to our fallen heroes and to their families," Oregon's senior U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden told the crowd. "It's a debt in my view that can never, never be repaid."

Shortly before he spoke, two World War II Stearman biplanes flew over, followed by two Oregon Air National Guard F-15 fighter jets.

Eagle Point singer Brian Williams sang a rousing rendition of the national anthem. And the mournful sound of "Amazing Grace," played by the Southern Oregon Scottish Bagpipe Band, floated across the picturesque hilltop cemetery.

"Today we honor those who made the supreme sacrifice in keeping with this ideal — those who gave all," said retired Marine Corps Col. Dave Dotterer, the master of ceremonies.

Oregon Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Mark Dalton, who oversees the Oregon Army National Guard Military Funeral Honors Team and has participated in more than 3,000 honor ceremonies, told the crowd that every ceremony is special to him.

The reason, said Dalton, who has served two tours of Iraq, is because of the connection he feels with someone who has worn a military uniform.

"When they did that, the things that people loved about them were instilled and grew and matured while they wore the uniform," he said. "What was instilled in them ... was a sense of discipline and appreciation of family, a stronger love of friendship and patriotism. Something began with wearing that uniform.

"As I say goodbye along with the family, I recognize those in service truly are a link in the chain of freedom you and I enjoy," he said, adding, "There is always somebody out there who wants to take our freedom."

In his remarks, keynote speaker Wyden echoed similar sentiments.

"As a nation we have learned that the greatness that is American freedom comes at a very high price," he said. "The rights we enjoy, the rights that make America the beacon of hope and freedom around the world, were secured by the determination, the sweat and ultimately the blood of the brave and selfless patriots we honor today."

Memorial Day is not a day for politics, be they Democrat or Republican, he said.

Citing a front-page Associated Press article in the Mail Tribune Monday morning, Wyden noted that nearly 50 percent of those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan seek service-related medical treatment. He called for everyone on both sides of the political aisle to back a budget that provides support for veterans and their families.

That is one of the best ways to thank a veteran, he suggested.

"What we are saying is that we as Americans do not glorify war," he stressed. "But we must give glory to those who have worn the uniform of the United States."

He said the families of veterans also sacrifice when their loved ones don a military uniform, referring to them as "the families who give so much, who go to bed at night wondering where their loved ones are."

Although email and Skype may have helped reduce the loneliness and worry, they can never replace the family member serving in harm's way, he said.

"The heart is heavy on a lot of those evenings," he said.

Some Americans on Memorial Day don't attend ceremonies honoring veterans, Wyden said, noting some are watching games while others may be enjoying a backyard barbecue.

"The reason that Americans have the choice to spend the day the way they want is because of our soldiers," he said. "That choice, that freedom, comes about because of America's men and women who wear the uniform of the United States."

Moreover, veterans have shown that Americans from all walks of life can work together, he said.

"We are a nation with challenges and differences," he said. "Our soldiers tell us something else: No matter what the different opinions we have as Americans, our soldiers show us that we can unite in a greater cause.

"They serve as proof that we can ignore the rhetoric of those who seek to capitalize on fear. When we join together, make no mistake about it, America cannot be overcome."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

Nikki Cochran of Klamath Falls pays her respects to her late husband, Jay Murray Cochran, who served in the U.S. Navy in Vietnam and in the Persian Gulf, at the Eagle Point National Cemetery Monday. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch