SHIRLEY — When Maj. Josh Phares of the Marine Corps was serving in Iraq in 2004, a suicide car bomber drove up next to his vehicle and blew himself up.
Phares was exposed from the waist up, but miraculously got away with only a couple of cuts and burns.
“Every Memorial Day that passes by, I sit and I look at the headstones and I look at the memorials, and I just thank God that I don’t have one,” he told a crowd of Shirley residents at Memorial Day ceremonies on Sunday.
Scores of onlookers lined Front Street as the parade of veterans, fire department members, Shirley American Legion members and more marched to Whiteley Park for a ceremony.
Phares emphasized how important it is to remember those who have gone.
“I’ve been to hell on Earth, I’ve been shot at, I’ve been blown up,” he said. “And the one thing that gives me strength, besides my buddy to the left and right of me, is knowing that there’s people like you back here that are not going to forget.”
Norman Albert of the Shirley Veterans Memorial Day Committee explained that Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, turned into a holiday in 1968.
“Tomorrow is that Memorial Day which is not much of a holiday for the families in Shirley who lost their loved ones,” he said.
Twenty-two white crosses bore the names of Shirley residents who died while serving in the armed forces, including six lost in World War I and 13 in World War II.
Selectman David Swain thanked veterans for serving this country– but unfortunately, he said to them, the day “is not about you.”
“It’s about your high school friends, relatives, neighbors who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “There are currently 37,000 flags flying on Boston Common right now. Those represent all the Massachusetts men and women who have died giving service to their country.”
The town of Shirley is extremely proud of its connections to the military and armed forces, he said, noting that the town lost 19 residents during the Civil War.
“Those people were defending the right of people to be treated equally, which is the principle the U.S. stands upon,” he said.
Swain highlighted the town’s participation in other wars throughout the centuries — 65 community members served in Korea and 73 served in Vietnam.
He pointed out that 291 residents served in World War II, which reaches its 70th anniversary this year. That represents over 91 percent of the eligible population, he said.
Swain then read aloud the 13 names of those who did not return.
“These individuals served their country and made the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “We are forever grateful for that, because without that opportunity for them to defend our country, we might be speaking a different language.”
The flag in the park slowly rose to the top of the pole as the crowd looked on, and the parade marched back to raise another flag at the center of town. The ceremony also included music from the Immaculate Heart of Mary school’s marching band and singers from Ayer-Shirley Middle School.
Bernard Mehserle, Sr., 86, rode in the parade as a veteran who served about 22 years. He served in Korea and Vietnam, and was a staff sergeant in the army.
He remembers a comrade who was shot down on July 4, 1965, in Vietnam. He also remembers the reception he received upon returning home — he said people spat, threw eggs and called the troops “baby killers.”
He said many people don’t realize what he and many other veterans have been through.
“A lot of these people outside just don’t know what it’s all about,” he said.
Ray Farrar, 88, is a member of Disabled American Veterans who served in Maryland and Pennsylvania. He came out to see the ceremonies with his daughter, who came to visit him.
He said it’s important to have younger people appreciate the work that others have done.
“They should not forget what the people who’ve gone ahead of us have done for us,” he said.
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