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Staff Writer

DEVENS — A small group of active-duty veterans — soldiers and Marines — accompanied by veterans from previous wars, wives, family members and friends, began Memorial Day remembrances with the unexpected honor of placing American flags in the ground before the tombstones of veterans that line the Fort Devens cemetery.

It took a while, but no one counted the minutes.

The gravestones of German and Italian prisoners of war, of course, stood bare, but they, too, would later be honored by their countrymen. Their military service to their countries was included in the speaker’s remarks.

“I’m humbled and honored to be here on a day when all Americans, regardless of race, creed or religion, gather not to mourn but to praise,” said guest speaker David McAllister, executive secretary of the New England Chapter of the Combat Infantrymen’s Association.

A colorguard from the 25th Marine Regiment at Devens stood silently near the podium.

After Chaplain Col. Richard Schweinsburg’s invocation, McAllister read “The Soldiers Prayer,” then said the custom of placing flags on graves is as old as time.

It began with the Greek, “Zoe,” or “life,” where flowers were placed over each new grave, he said. If they took root, it sent a message that the soul of the departed felt happier.

“I believe we’ve helped our veterans find happiness today,” said McAllister. “We owe a great debt to those who suffered the danger and hardship of war.”

A twice-wounded Vietnam veteran and Bronze Star recipient, he said, “I feel I understand the hardship veterans of all branches of military service endured. The Navy at the Saigon River, my awe at the courage of helicopter pilots and the thankfulness for the Air Force’s close-air support bombs.

“We never wore ponchos because their shine in the moonlight would give away our position. Rain hitting the plastic had a different sound than hitting natural turf,” he said. “Lying awake at night, unable to sleep, there was a lot of time to think of the operations just completed and how we could do them better, or of family at home.

“You wondered how that moon could be the same one shining over home,” said McAllister. “I wonder how we did it, (but) think about our grandfathers, fathers, uncles, cousins in World War II and Korea. They had it unbearable.”

McAllister intoned names well-known to Vietnam veterans.

“Hue, Pleiku, Tet of ’68, Hamburger Hill, A Shaw Valley, places we lost friends,” he said. “In Iraq our soldiers endure the relentless extremes of temperature as they fight today more than ever before because of air mobility and insertion.”

McAllister had statistics he didn’t mention that showed, in World War II, the average number of days an infantry soldier spent in combat was 40 over four years. In Vietnam, it was 265 days out of 365, and the same, or more, in Iraq, because of increased insertion capability.

“To properly honor the dead, we must honor the living,” McAllister said. “We must continue to honor our returning soldiers. Thank them now — Don’t wait until later. The tranquility we enjoy today was purchased dearly by our forefathers.

“Some have asked me, ‘Have I ever been back to Vietnam?’ Almost every night,” McAllister said. “There is no better personal experience than to walk this cemetery and reflect on the names.”

McAllister read the poem, “The Memorial.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Peter Brooks, of the Reserve Forces Training Area, read the poem, “Memorial Day.”

The commander, Lt. Col. Caryn Heard, presented an Army coin to McAllister to say thank you.

“”We won’t forget,” she said. “Although we didn’t know those we placed flags for, they know we were here to honor them. Without David’s (service) I wouldn’t be here to serve.”

Throughout the ceremonies, Dorothy Van Hoogen, of Groton, sat on the padded seat of her walker. Her husband, a World War II veteran, is buried there, as are her two infant sons, Christopher and Jeffrey, atop her husband’s casket. The reason, she said, is to make room for her own.

As participants left, four Marines of the 25th Regiment slowly walked the rows of gravestones, out of sight, far away from the crowd, reading the names of those who went before them.