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SHIPROCK — Tiara Begaye poured water on her left hand then sprinkled it on the loose soil at her great-grandfather's gravesite at the Shiprock Veterans Memorial Cemetery.

This was the first time the 13-year-old was helping her grandfather clean the area on Memorial Day.

"I wanted to help," Begaye said, adding she decided to visit the site because she wanted to learn more about her family history.

David Dale, Begaye's grandfather, visits the graves of his uncle, Peter Dale Begay, and his father, Fred Dale, who is buried at Memory Gardens Cemetery in Farmington, each Memorial Day.

The brothers were drafted during World War II – Peter into the Army and Fred into the Air Force – and returned to the Navajo Nation after military service.

"I feel good about it," David Dale said about their service, adding his family cherishes the memories and photographs they have for both.

In another section of the cemetery, Shiprock resident Juanita Hosteen placed debris in a large plastic bag after cleaning the gravesites for her father, Joe Tom Tapaha, and her brother, Emerson Tom Tapaha.

"We miss them. We still love them. They're still in our hearts. That's why we clean and put flowers," she said.

Hosteen was an infant when her father was in the Army during World War II. Her brother followed her father's Army footsteps and served in Operation Desert Storm.

Kershena Hosteen worked next to her mother and used a rake to gather dried tumbleweeds from the burial sites.

"We can still feel their presence. They're watching us and they're happy that we're fixing their graves," Kershena said.

Mark Decker, quartermaster for the Shiprock Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9517, said 103 volunteers placed 476 flags and crosses on gravesites this morning.

During a gravesite service by the group, speakers read comments from U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Tom Udall.

"Some of you are still in pain like your family just left yesterday, so thank you for being here," said Cal Curley, a field representative for Udall's office.

State Rep. Sharon Clahchischilliage provided comments as well. Decker read proclamations from President Donald Trump and Gov. Susana Martinez.

VFW members placed a wreath and flowers – in red, white and blue – at the base of the flag pole in addition to conducting a rifle salute, the playing of taps and flag refolding and retirement services.

Juanita Wiley watched as VFW members Lester Light and Jonas John carefully folded her father's flag.

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After it was returned to Wiley, she returned to the area where her sister, Maggie Benally, sat with their one-year-old grandson.

Their father, Peter Wiley, was a VFW member who received two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained during World War II.

When Peter Wiley died at 80 in 1990, the flag was presented to the sisters' mother. It now stays in Juanita's home in Shiprock.

The sisters cleaned their father's burial site at the cemetery on Sunday and attended the VFW event in his honor.

"He would tell us to be patriotic, to always respect the flag because he was a World War II veteran," Benally said.

Benally, who lives in Window Rock, Arizona, added their father never missed participating in the Northern Navajo Nation Fair parade with the VFW.

For Wiley, the memory of her father's service continues, with family members serving in the Marines and Navy.

As for Memorial Day, she said it is a time "to honor all our fallen soldiers."

"And for those who are still here, we give them thanks for what they have done for us," Wiley said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636, or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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