Memorial Day 2009
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Abts, Richard. Adamski, Walter. Ahlman, Enoch.
The names are whisked away by the hot, gusting wind as soon as they are spoken, forgotten in the stream of the next name and the next name and the next name.
Fuller, Addison. Fuller, Mary. Furlong, John.
The story of America could be told through these names, tales of bravery and hesitation, of dreams achieved or deferred and of battles won and lost.
Taken alone, they are just words, identities stripped of place and time, stripped of rank and deeds and meaning.
But they are not taken alone. They are taken together — 148,000 names, representing the entire veteran population of Riverside National Cemetery, a roll call of the dead read aloud over 10 days by more than 300 volunteers.
They read in pairs, rotating through 15-minute shifts in the beating sun, in the chilly desert night and in the pre-dawn hours thick with mosquitoes.
Some time on Memorial Day, they will read the last name on the 2,465th page.
Some read for their country.
Others read for a father lost in battle or a beloved son cut down in his prime.
And one man reads for no one in particular — except, maybe, for himself.
Richard Blackaby was just 18 and fresh out of high school in 1966 when he was drafted for Vietnam. His father had served as a Seabee in the U.S. Navy during World War II and Blackaby was desperate to follow in his path.
But the Army said no: Blackaby had epilepsy and asthma and was unfit for service.
Twelve years later, Blackaby — now married with three children — reapplied to the Army and was accepted to the 4th Infantry Division as a forward observer.
But Vietnam was over and the eager recruit spent the next six years waiting for a war that never came. When he was honorably discharged in 1984, he was a sergeant but had never experienced combat, had never called in a real air strike or fired at a real target.
Nearly 25 years later, Blackaby's missed opportunity weighs on him as he patrols his self-selected battleground: Riverside, the nation's busiest national cemetery. While others gave their lives, Blackaby gives his time — and a lot of it, nearly 30 hours a week.
Over the years, Blackaby has made his specialty here not among the remembered and the honored, but among the lost, the abandoned and the forgotten. The work seems to fit his story of missed chances and dashed dreams, his yearning to belong to something greater than himself.
Every day, the 60-year-old grandfather with the crinkly, blue-gray eyes slips on the black leather vest that's his personal uniform and stands at attention as the cemetery honors the cremated remains of dozens of abandoned or forgotten veterans.
Every day, he salutes as the National Guard reads the names off the simple wooden boxes filled with ashes.
Every day, he accepts the folded flag for soldiers he will never know — and then gives it back for the next day's dead.
Dog tags engraved with the names of 145 forgotten veterans dangle from a thick key chain that never leaves his side, a different color for each branch of service. He knows the story behind almost every name.
"If I didn't do it, who would do it?" he says. "I mean, they have friends, they HAVE to have friends. They don't go through a whole lifetime and not have somebody that cares about them."
And, true to form, Blackaby reads names — hundreds of them — for the roll call project.
He reads for hours on overnight shifts in the cemetery's eerie gloom, the podium illuminated only by a floodlight. He reads during the weekend afternoons and late into a Saturday night to cover gaps in the schedule.
"Every one that we read off, I feel like I am probably doing their family a favor because they can't be here," he said.
"I'm reading off a whole litany of history. It kind of makes you wonder what's behind each name, what their life was like, what they did."
Lamborn, Richard. Lamphear, Everett. Landaker, Jared.
A gust of wind springs up and snatches the last name away.
No one notices it and later, even the volunteer readers won't recall the name of the young Marine or which one of them read it.
All they know is he was a 1st lieutenant, fifth from the bottom on page seven of 2,465.
Joe Landaker was the first person to touch his son, Jared, as he slipped into the world on his parents' bed on May 3, 1981, after 36 hours of labor.
From the beginning, Jared was special — but not in the way most parents would want. His skull was compressed during birth and doctors warned that he might be mentally challenged.
During childhood, he kept falling off the growth chart. He barely topped out at 5-foot-8.
But Jared, who went by the nickname J-Rod, surprised everyone.
He took calculus in high school, knuckled down in college and got a degree in physics. He signed up for the Marines his sophomore year and graduated from officer training school in Quantico, Va., among the top five in his platoon of 80 men.
By fall of 2003, he was in flight school and on Aug. 18, 2006, Jared shipped out for Iraq as a Marine helicopter pilot flying a CH-46 Sea Knight with the famed HMM-364 Purple Foxes.
"He overcame so many adversities in his life, time after time," said his father, Joe.
On Feb. 7, 2007, a week before Jared was expected home in Big Bear City, his father was watching CNN at 5:30 a.m., getting ready to go to work, when he saw that a CH-46 chopper had been shot down near while on a medical mission.
Two months before, when two Marines died in a CH-46 crash, Jared had e-mailed his parents within two hours to let him know he was OK.
But this time, hours passed with no word.
"They said there were seven people on board, so I waited. I didn't go to work, waited and waited all day long, waited again for his e-mail or a phone call that he was all right," said Landaker, choking back tears. "It never did come."
At 4:15 p.m., a Marine captain, a chaplain and a 1st sergeant came to tell Landaker his son had died on his last mission before coming home.
Since that day, Landaker has been consumed with keeping his son's memory alive. He shares his story with anyone who will listen. He has memorized every detail of his son's life and death. He now knows that the boy who called him "Pops" took 58 seconds to lower his stricken chopper from 1,500 feet to 200 feet; seven seconds faster, and he might be alive today.
"The last thing I want to do is forget about Jared. He comes to my mind all the time, songs, things that you see," said Landaker. "When he was a baby, I'd give him a shower and I'd hold him up and those kind of memories come to mind all the time."
"He's so special to me," he said. "Those Iraqis have no idea who they killed."
The rows of grave markers are cool and smooth in the heat, their numbers obscured by tufts of grass that have crept around the edges of the stone.
Landaker walks, head bowed, along the rows of plots in Section 49B.
"3438. It should be right around here," he says, bending low.
Then Landaker falls to his knees, weeping.
The stories, the details don't matter now: There is no way to unbury the dead, to bring the CH-46 from 200 feet back to 1,500 feet, to reset the clock with seven extra seconds.
"Well, all right son," he says. "Take care, son."
And so he volunteers to help call the roll at Riverside. He will not have an opportunity to read his own son's name, but at least he can ensure that the sons of others are not forgotten.
The heat beats down on the volunteers. A dozen spectators press themselves into any sliver of shade — a tree, the thin shadow of the flagpole, an awning.
In the shade near the sign-in booth, Richard Blackaby and Joe Landaker stand ready to take the podium, two strangers awkwardly chatting before their shared 15 minutes of service.
Landaker wears a white T-shirt printed with Jared's photo; Blackaby, for once, has shed his black leather vest for a dark suit adorned with military ribbons and an American flag pin.
They discover a bittersweet bond: Blackaby escorted Jared's coffin to his military funeral at the cemetery two years before. The two men embrace, then step to the podium.
The names pass between them like fragile treasures.
White, Clark. White, Mary. Whito, Russell.
Their 15 minutes pass, and they step down. Landaker, eyes red with tears, has another piece of his puzzle, another connection — another story to cling to.
But Blackaby is not finished. He steps forward again, ready to read for those who will never have the love of a father like Jared's. He will be there until 2:30 a.m. on this muggy Sunday and back again the next day and the next day and the next.
He is patrolling the boundaries of the past, filling gaps in this American story and in his own life — one name at a time.
It is very sad to think of the countless families who are effected by the loss of their family member in the service of our country. It is important that we all remember their sacrifices and the freedom we enjoy because of them.
Be sure to check out the Memorial Day Wiki