A Memorial Day ceremony held at the Ceres Memorial Park paid tribute to the countless local men and women who gave up their lives or part of it in defense of the nation.
The event, held at 10 a.m., was staged by the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and drew an appearance by Congressman Jeff Denham.
Denham said it was fitting to remember the fallen and recognize the more than 60,000 men and women in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties who served in every conflict since World War II. Then he focused on the recent scandal surrounding the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and scheduling delays to hide thousands of patients on secret waiting lists.
The Turlock Republican paid special homage to Thomas Breen, a 71-year-old Navy veteran who went to the Phoenix Veterans Affairs hospital where he was unable to receive treatment. His condition was listed as "urgent" in September but despite repeated calls by his family, Breen was not given an appointment and died in Nov. 30.
"The VA called a week later to book his appointment; it was too late for Mr. Breen," said Denham.
He also focused on Vietnam War veteran James Byrd, who fought in the Marines from 1969 to 1970. He suffered from skin cancer - likely due to exposure to Agent Orange - and was also placed on a six- to nine-month wait at the Phoenix VA center.
"We now know James was never even put on a real list, only the secret waiting list," said Denham. "When the VA finally screened him to see if the cancer had returned months later, it was also too late. There are 38 more stories like these of heroes who died waiting for care in Phoenix. We owe our veterans everything. They deserve the best possible health care we can give them and they deserve it immediately."
Denham said he is "committed to getting to the truth of this widespread problem so that no veteran or veterans' family member ever has to experience what those in Phoenix did. Rest assured I will not stop until we have the truth and make the drastic changes and hold those accountable for these wrongs that have happened to our veterans."
The congressman said he is pressing for expediting construction of the 52-acre $368 million French Camp outpatient clinic and 120-bed Community Living Center to be constructed near Stockton starting next year. The hospital would reduce travel times for local veterans.
Walt Butler of Ceres, who is an American Legion official, delivered a touching story of how 8-year-old Myles Eckert found a $20 bill in the parking lot of a Maumee, Ohio Cracker Barrel and instead of buying Legos like he originally planned, gave it to veteran. "Dear soldier," the note said, "my Dad was a soldier. He's in Heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. Today is your lucky day. Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, lone star child." The recipient Lt. Col. Frank Dailey, was moved.
"Army Sgt. Eckert was denied his opportunity to raise this outstanding young man, we can all imagine how proud he would be of his son's commitment to pay it forward," said Butler. "It's a commitment that the American Legion shares by advocating for veterans and supporting military families through our programs."
After a 21-gun salute by the Legion and VFW posts, the program allowed audience members to place a small poppy into a memorial wreath and call out the name of a loved one who served the country in the Armed Forces.
Towards the end of the program, a "final roll call" was given of veterans from the area who in the last few years answered their final roll call. Names that were read, followed by the pronouncement of "no answer" and the ringing of a bell, were: James Layton, Daniel Hyde, Raymond Hill, Oscar Sanchez, Tony Gonzales, Frank Gasper, Robert Rapp, Matthew Tallman, Bruce Salazar, Charles Palmer, Joshua Pickard, Joseph Gage, Kenneth Cox, Irving Gilgert, Cornelius Kidd, Aaron William, Richard Sawyer, Earl Erwin, Fred Gollihar, Brandon Dewey, Tony Mendez, Daniel Hansen, Juana Navarro, Michael Anderson, Jesse Martinez, Patrick McCaffrey, Michael Vega, Steven Bridges, Karina Lau, Joseph Menusa, Tung Nguyen, Daniel Fuller, Larry Hoobler, Eugene "Gene" Welsh, Dan Andreika, Jackie Dillon, Merl Foust and Grant Lucas.