Hundreds wore their red, white and blue, waved American flags and shared solemn moments of reflection at Memorial Day observances in Watauga County.

Originally called Decoration Day, from the early tradition of decorating graves with flowers, wreaths and flags, Memorial Day is a day for remembrance of those who have died in service to the United States. It was first widely observed to commemorate the sacrifices of Civil War soldiers. In 1971, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act and established that Memorial Day was to be commemorated on the last Monday of May.

At the High Country Chapter MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) Memorial Day Event on Monday, May 27, at the Boone Mall, the guest speaker was Navy Counselor Chief Petty Officer Rick Cornejo, who served in the Navy for 22 years and currently is the finance officer for Watauga County American Legion Post 130, commander of the Ashe County DAV Chapter 80 and pastor of Mount Paran Baptist Church in Deep Gap.

“Each Memorial Day we have the chance to reconnect and (remember) the numerous freedoms we enjoy and take for granted, like our barbecues,” Cornejo said. “It is an important day on which we ground ourselves in the reality that every Gold Star Family knows — our way of life has taken shape and is made possible by those who served and are still serving.”

Cornejo provided a history of the American Legion, which turns 100 years old this year. The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. Focusing on service to veterans, service members and communities, the Legion evolved from a group of World War I veterans into an influential nonprofit group.

The Legion has influenced considerable social change, won hundreds of benefits for veterans and produced many important programs for children and youth, according to its website. Today, membership stands at over 2 million in more than 13,000 posts worldwide.

The Legion has supported or lobbied on behalf of the creation of the U.S. Veterans Bureau (the forerunner of the Veterans Administration), the Boy Scouts of America, American Legion Baseball, the GI Bill, the National Emergency Fund the National Association for Mental Health, the American Legion Child Welfare Foundation, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, veterans’ health research, the Family Support Network and many other efforts and programs.

The Legion urges a full accounting of all POWs and troops missing in action, and at every meeting, Cornejo said, the Legion has resolved to designate an empty chair representing a POW/MIA soldier.

“Our Legion posts today make sure that each veteran receives military honors at each funeral,” Cornejo said, after noting that he is often asked why one should join the Legion. “My question is, if not you, then who?”

The High Country MOAA event also included patriotic music by the Watauga Community Band, posting of colors by the Watauga High School MCJROTC and recognitions of veterans by conflict and service branch.

In a brief but poignant ceremony, Blowing Rock, Lt. Col. (Ret.) Bill Parker of the U.S. Marine Corps told a crowd gathered in Memorial Park the story of a U.S. plane that crashed on the ridge of Pu’u Naue Ridge on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, near Camp H.M. Smith and Pearl Harbor. Parker said he used to run the trail while stationed at Camp Smith in the 1980s and would run by the remains of a wrecked airplane from World War II.

This past December during the Dec. 8-10 snowstorm, Parker told the crowd he did some research and found out it was a B-24 bomber that crashed shortly after departing from Hickam Field near Honolulu, bound for Australia on May 5, 1944. All 10 airmen aboard died. Parker read the names of the airmen and led the crowd in a vocal rendition of “Taps.”

Community members were also invited to gather on May 24 for a Memorial Day event outside of Edwards Jones in Boone — the third annual observance of the holiday that the business has held. Edward Jones offered music and a BBQ lunch for attendees.

During the month of May, Edward Jones also offered a community memorial garden along Blowing Rock Road where passersby could place small American flags in the ground in memory of loved ones who served.

Thomas Sherrill and Kayla Lasure contributed reporting to this story.

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