The Memorial Day observance was held at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona in Phoenix, on May 29, 2017.
Tom Tingle/

Hundreds of veterans and their families gathered in north Phoenix on Memorial Day for a ceremony honoring Arizona servicemen and servicewomen who died in the line of duty.

As visitors filed past the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona’s graves, decorated with 70,000 miniature flags, they were reminded of Memorial Day’s origins, and reflected on the lives of their loved ones.

At least one Arizona soldier died in action over the last year: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin J. McEnroe, of Tucson. McEnroe was killed in an attack on a military base in Jordan in November.

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“We have a sacred duty that was passed down 150 years ago: To provide a final resting place of dignity, honor and respect,” said Jerry Rainey, National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona director.

“The sad truth is that over 100 million men and women never returned home to see their loved ones again,” Rainey said.

‘They’re not forgotten’

Memorial Day became a holiday in 1868, three years after the Civil War’s end. It formalized the custom of placing flowers on fallen soldiers’ graves.

Today, people throughout the country use the holiday to think about those who lost their lives in the service of others. 

“It means a lot to see these people (here),” Jeff Burm said after the Phoenix ceremony. His son, who died while serving in the Navy, is buried at the 225-acre cemetery.

Monday’s turnout showed Arizonans care about people like his son, Burm said, and that “they’re not forgotten.”

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Burm is a member of the Navy’s Gold Star program, which provides long-term benefits to family members of sailors who died on active duty.

Army veteran Charlie Ellis, 48, said his father and “a couple Army buddies” are buried at the cemetery. He said he was happy to see “a lot of people here honoring veterans, not just vets.”

“(The diversity is) good, because we can get lost in our own little clique,” he said.

Giving back to veterans’ families

Though Memorial Day was created to remember veterans who died, some attendees celebrated the lives of family members who made it home safely.

Samantha Kovacs, 20, sat near the cemetery’s entrance, giving water to visitors. Her father is an Army veteran, she said, and she hands out free water as a thank-you to families of fallen soldiers.

“It’s the least I could do to take care of the families,” she said. 

Kovacs’s boyfriend, Nick Depew, accompanied her this year.

“I’ve had a member of every generation in the service for as long as I can remember,” Depew said. “It’s about honoring those who have sacrificed their lives for freedom.”

Other visitors spent the morning thinking about those currently serving.

Steve and Lisa Pilger haven’t seen their son, who is stationed in Afghanistan with the U.S. Air Force, in-person for six months.

“As Americans, it’s important to honor the sacrifice of servicemen and women,” Steve Pilger said. “What’s asked of us is pretty minimal.”


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