Cars lined up along Washington Boulevard. Crowds filled the amphitheater and spilled out into surrounding areas of Arlington National Cemetery.
Rupert Lyles had a good idea of why so many people were willing to brave threats of rain to spend Memorial Day in Arlington.
“We’ve had some troubling times,” said Lyles, a Korean War veteran, as he walked through the crowd giving away miniature American flags. “Our people here should all support each other. We all need to be here.”
Thousands of people from around the country gathered at the cemetery Monday to celebrate Memorial Day and hear President George W. Bush speak. “This nation does not forget,” Bush said. “Today we remember all who died, all who are still missing, and all who mourn.”
He read excerpts from letters from servicemen lost in recent conflicts, including one from U.S. Army Capt. James Adamouski, from Springfield. Adamouski wrote to his wife, Meighan, "I do my job 110 percent and don't get distracted or discouraged when I'm out flying on missions. However, when I have some down time and get to really thinking, I realize that for all the good times – all the good things we're doing here, I just plain miss you."
Bush called on all Americans to remember soldiers like Adamouski. “Americans like these did not fight for glory, but to fulfill a duty,” he said. “They did not yearn to be heroes, they yearned to see Mom and Dad again and to hold their sweethearts… yet they gave all that up and gave life itself for the sake of others.”
BUSH’S CALL TO remember soldiers missing in action resonated for some, like Jim Smith.
Smith rode into Arlington from Cincinnati to participate in the Rolling Thunder rally, the annual motorcycle procession from the Pentagon into the District to honor American prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action.
“[I came] mainly for the POW/MIA awareness,” said Smith, who fought in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969. The crowds of people gathered in Arlington encouraged the former soldier. “I was impressed,” he said. “It was a big turnout.”
LYLES STOPPED HANDING out flags before the president spoke. The veteran took a look across the cemetery plot behind the amphitheater, where police and other security personnel directed crowds of people who came hoping to witness the ceremony inside.
“I think it’s just wonderful,” he said. He’d been coming to Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington for 15 years, and the only larger crowd he could remember may have been three years ago. But it was still an impressive turnout this Monday, Lyles said.
Lyles has been coming to Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington for 15 years, serving in the American Legion honor society, commonly called the 40 and Eight. Membership in the society, which has been around since the 1920s, is by invitation only, recognizing distinguished service to the Legion.
Members of the 40 and Eight passed out 5,000 flags when Lyles first started. Each year the number has grown. This year they expected to distribute about 10,000.
Lyles didn’t have long to survey the crowd: A young boy trailed his mother up the path to get a better view of the amphitheater, and Lyles sprang into action to make sure the boy had a flag.
LEGIONNAIRES WEREN’T the only ones paying close attention to children in the crowd. Steve and Inger Shepelwich brought their 18-month-old son, Sam, to be part of the Memorial Day celebration.
“Given the situation in the country, I thought it was appropriate to pay our respects,” said Steve Shepelwich.
Inger Shepelwich wasn’t sure if the patriotic displays would sink in for an infant, but some parts of the ceremony did draw a response. “He enjoyed the 21-gun salute for sure,” Inger said.
Cannons fired the salute at the end of Bush’s speech, which focused mainly on lives lost in recent conflicts. Those deaths were not in vain, he said. “Today we recall that liberty is always the achievement of courage.”
LARGE CROWDS meant many people hoping to see the president had to wait on the hill above the amphitheater and strain to hear the proceedings.
Bryan Smith rode all the way from Cincinnati alongside his father, Jim, to experience Memorial Day for the first time. For now, the Smiths are happy to have stood in the back row, but next year, they will be sitting front and center. They plan to make the trip a yearly tradition.
“It’s a pretty neat experience for me because he’s a Vietnam vet,” said Bryan Smith. “You never really put it into perspective until you go down to the Wall. You hear the numbers, and then you go down there and start reading names. It puts it into perspective for what they do and what they did for us.”
Meanwhile, Lyles kept walking through the crowd handing out flags. He’ll be back next year doing the same thing. He plays a small part in Memorial Day, but he describes his efforts with dignity: “I do my best,” he said.