An overcast sky reflected a somber mood as about 200 people gathered in front of the State Capitol on Saturday morning to remember the 194 Louisianians who have made the ultimate sacrifice serving their country since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As 10,000 miniature flags, planted on the Capitol’s front lawn Friday by the Blue Star Mothers of Louisiana Chapter 1, waved in a mild breeze, the fathers, mothers and other relatives who are now “Gold Star” members, were pinned with small yellow carnations before the service began.
“This means a lot to me because I lost a sister in the (Iraq) war and it shows me that people still care and they remember the true meaning of what Memorial Day is all about,” said Claudia Billiot, an Army veteran who took her daughter, Marisol, 4, named after her fallen sister. “It is not about the sales at the mall or the barbecue or getting drunk — it is about our nation’s fallen heroes.”
A Joint Service Color Guard posted the flags, and the Baton Rouge Pipes and Drums opened the service with a traditional march then Lt. Col. Adam White, of the State Police in a strong voice sang the national anthem. The invocation was given by Kenneth Austin, a Vietnam-era veteran, who thanked God for this nation’s freedom and for the families who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
“We stand humbly before these 10,000 flags,” said Janet Broussard, president of the Blue Star Mothers, “and as you can see, they stop people — literally — in their tracks. That, of course, is exactly our point. May we never forget the sacrifices of so many.”
Master of ceremony, Major William Saint, of the Army National Guard, read General Order No. 11, written on May 5, 1868, by Gen. John A. Logan, of the Grand Army of the Republic. The order declares a day to “gather around the sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds with the choicest flowers of springtime” and “raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor.”
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, a historian as well as a politician, related the state’s “rich tradition” of military service. The LSU mascot, he said, “came from the Fighting Tigers brigade that was led by a gentleman named Wheat. It was the fiercest battalion of the Confederate Army and the most feared group around in the battle of Bull Run.”
On a per capita basis, Louisiana has provided more servicemen and women than any other state, Dardenne said. “Louisiana understands and believes in service — particularly when it comes to military service.”
Gina Guillory, a Gold Star mother of Marine Sgt. Michael J. Guillory, 28, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2013, solemnly read the classic World War I poem, “In Flanders’ Fields.”
“We are the dead,” Guillory read, “Short days ago we lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved, and were loved, and now we lie in Flanders’ fields.”
For the next 45 minutes, an air of sadness pervaded the group as the names of Louisiana’s fallen were read by volunteers or family members. A brass bell was tolled after each name and many family members then planted a small flag in the lawn.
“Staff Sgt. Bryan Lewis — my son, my only son,” said Deloris Lewis as tears welled up in her eyes. Many in the crowd, men and women, wiped away tears as each name was called.
Heyward Jeffers, a Vietnam veteran, sat near the podium and wore a somber expression as he tolled the bell at each name.
“For whom the bell tolls,” Jeffers said afterward. “This is the first time I’ve rung the bell that many times — it gives you a moment to think about — why is that bell sounding? That mournful single sound is marking the passing of one of our armed forces person.”
After all the names were called, Jeffers read “We Remember Them,” another somber poem of how the fallen are remembered. Three members of the American Legion Post 38 fired a three-shot salute and Lt. Col. Tim Toler, retired Army, played a solemn taps on his silver trumpet.
A mournful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” played by the Baton Rouge Pipes and Drums, closed the service and there wasn’t a dry eye anywhere by the time it ended.