Hundreds of people filled the veterans section of Memorial Gardens Cemetery for a Memorial Day service.
Many stood in salute, and some walked the rows of graves, looking for friends and family members. Others took shade under nearby trees or sat on lawn chairs under umbrellas.
They were gathered to honor all the branches of the military, with a special salute to five Farmington veterans who were killed or went missing in action during the Korean War.
A motorcycle rally brought in more than a hundred riders, with flags waving, to start the service, which is now in its ninth year.
For the first time, Navajo drummers Lickity Split provided music at the service. The trio from Window Rock, Ariz., chanted and beat a communal drum for three songs as Navajo medicine man and Vietnam War veteran Francis Mitchell led a “feeding of the spirit” ceremony.
“The first song honors the flag, the memorial for veterans and the third was for a victory song,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell, whose grandfather was a Navajo Code Talker and whose uncle was a Korean War veteran, was aided during the ceremony by Vietnam War veteran Abe Saiz, the commander of the Aztec chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 614.
Saiz walked through the crowd, holding a bowl of water with Navajo medicine. He sprinkled it and stopped to wet the open hands of attendees who stood forward to take part.
During his invocation speech, Saiz asked that all gathered in body or spirit to “be thankful for the sacrifices of our military and for peace.”
Jolydean Patterson came to visit the grave of her husband, a World War II U.S. Army veteran who died after retiring from active duty. Her grandson is in the Army and is back home after being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan three times.
“My husband would have been 93 this year,” Patterson said. “It's a great program, this memorial service. My husband would have approved.”
As she's gotten older, Patterson has had more reason to visit the cemetery to visit friends buried throughout the grounds.
“I've seen this cemetery grow,” she said.
After the service, U.S. Air Force veteran Bruce Salisbury stood beside a recovered naval ship's bell he brought to toll for the five honored Korean War veterans — Army Master Sgt. Gray Pinto Pete, Army Sgt. Jimmie Jumbo, U.S. Navy Ensign Glen Howard Rickleton, Army Sgt. Douglas Sherman Woolman and U.S. Marine Sgt. Marion Ray King.
Salisbury stayed after the service to allow anyone in attendance to ring the 100-pound brass bell in remembrance.
Harvey Harwood Jr. rode his motorcycle from his home in Upper Fruitland to Four Corners Harley-Davidson to participate in the pre-service rally, bringing along a photograph of his deceased parents. He rang the bell once in honor of his dad, Harvey Harwood Sr., who served overseas in the Army for all three years of the Korean War.
“He never talked about his time over in Korea,” said Harvey Harwood Jr., tearing up. “Although I remember him once saying that Korea was the longest time in his life.”
His father died five years ago after retiring from career work in the environmental department at Navajo Mine.
Salisbury, who spoke during the service for the five Korean War veterans, was not short on takers wishing to toll the bell.
“The Korean and World War II vets are leaving so fast that now if any show up, they'll be in wheelchairs,” Salisbury said. “We need to remember these folks, give them proper salute and tell their story.”
Bob Miller, who was on the same naval ship as honored Farmington veteran Glen Howard Rickleton, drove down from Durango with his wife. Miller is a veteran of the Korean War, which is often called “The Forgotten War” because of the lack of attention it received, in part because it was sandwiched between World War II and the Vietnam War.
From his wheelchair, Miller tolled the ship's bell for each of the five Farmington Korean War veterans.
Across town at the football field beside the Farmington Boys and Girls Club, 800 American flags flapped in the wind, arranged in perfect rows across the lawn.
Called the Flags of Remembrance Healing Field, the memorial event — like the memorial service — was as arresting to the eye as it was to the ear.
Hundreds of commemorative dog tags hung from 8-foot flag poles. They clanged eerily in the wind, adding a solemn air as small groups of veterans and their families strolled the grounds.
Jeremy Nygren, dressed in full camouflage uniform, brought his wife and four children to the field.
“I want my children to know how blessed we are to live in this country, the greatest nation on earth,” said Nygren.
Nygren's grandfather, the late Farmington Mayor Bill Nygren, inspired him to the enter the military.
“He was a good man,” said Jeremy Nygren. “He inspired all his grandkids — whether in military service or not — to do right.”
Now, Jeremy Nygren is in his third year in the U.S. Army and is stationed at Fort Bliss.
He said he wanted the country to take notice of the Memorial Day holiday and the purpose behind it.
“We've been given this day, not just as a day to go fishing, but for an important purpose,” he said. “This day is set aside because of shared sacrifice. It's to remember.”
James Fenton covers Aztec and Bloomfield for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4631 and email@example.com. Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.