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SHIRLEY — Frank Belitsky, a retired Army lieutenant colonel from Groton, offered words of wisdom during the town’s annual Memorial Day ceremonies at Whitely Park.

“I’ll make you a deal,” he began. “If you’ll listen, I promise to make this (speech) simple and short.”

His audience complied, and Belitsky was as good as his word.

Future generations must not forget the 3,770 “warriors” who have lost their lives in Iraq or those who died in other wars dating back to the Civil War, said Belitsky. Memorial Day is to honor them all, he said. Sometimes it’s easy to forget the solemnity of the occasion.

“It’s not just a day off from work,” he said.

In 1866, he said, the U.S. was recovering from a “long and bloody” civil war, and soldiers were coming home, some with missing limbs.

“Does that sound familiar?” he asked.

Continuing his story, he said a New York druggist had an idea to set aside a day to honor the war dead in his town. He was joined in the effort by a retired major general named Logan — for whom Boston’s international airport is named.

On that day, veterans in Waterloo, N.Y., marched to the cemetery to “decorate their comrades’ graves,” Belitsky said.

Memorial Day was originally called decoration day, he said.

“This is what it’s for,” he said.

Noting that veterans now speak at local schools around this time, he said it’s important to remember that Memorial Day isn’t a celebration, it’s a commemoration. In the early days, school children set wreaths on veterans’ graves at the cemetery, he said.

President Richard Nixon gave Memorial Day national holiday status in 1971 and set aside the last Monday in May for it, said Belitsky. Part of honoring the dead is honoring the nation they died defending, he said, and that includes respect for the flag.

When the flag is carried by, people should stand, remove their headgear, take cigarettes or cigars from their mouths and place their right hands over their hearts, he said.

Belitsky sketched a patriotic lexicon that underscored the meaning of Memorial Day. Respect for the sacrifices service men and women make is the point of this day, he said.

“Sacrifice is meaningless without remembrance,” he said, and it’s too easy to forget.

“Our freedoms are paid for by people we never know,” he said. “We owe them a debt.”

The “service and sacrifice” of men and women who died in the nation’s wars must be remembered by future generations, he said.

“You are never forgotten,” he said.

Belitsky retired in 1963. He and his wife were married in Munich, Germany, in 1947 and will celebrate their 60th anniversary this year, he said.

The speaking roster also included state Sen. Pamela Resor and state Rep. James Eldridge, both Acton democrats.