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On Memorial Day, Americans gather to remember, celebrate

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

TIMONIUM, Md. -- This Memorial Day, Army Spc. Donald Schafer is celebrating just being alive.

The 23-year-old tank operator was traveling with a convoy of armored vehicles in Iraq on April 5 when his tank was hit by a rocket and caught fire. Schafer was shot in the arm.

"I could have been very well lying here with these gentlemen," he said at a Memorial Day service Monday, looking at the graves at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. "That's the key thing that keeps running through my mind. I could very well be lying here instead of celebrating" Memorial Day.

Americans across the country honored their war dead with ceremonies and soggy Memorial Day parades Monday, even as others celebrated the return of U.S. troops from the war in Iraq and paid tribute to those still serving abroad.

At Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, families waited in the rain to welcome 2,300 Marines and sailors from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, the first major Marine Corps unit returning to the United States from combat in Iraq aboard three ships.

"It's good to see U.S. soil, really good," said Cpl. Travis Hoots of Roodhouse, Ill., who was greeted by his wife, Jamie, and their 7-month-old son.

"I spent a lot of nights thinking about what this day would be like," Hoots said as he looked at his new baby. "I'm just sort of dumbfounded."

A few parades honored the memory of those who didn't make it home, but events across the country were canceled as stormy weather settled across nearly all corners of the United States.

President Bush laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery as he paid tribute to those who died at war, noting particularly "recent loss and recent courage" in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Today, we recall that liberty is always the achievement of courage and today we remember all who have died, all who are still missing and all who mourn," Bush said.

A light drizzle didn't stop thousands of people from gathering for a parade along flag-lined Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, Mich., a Detroit suburb in which about 30 percent of residents claim Arab ancestry.

Akram Al-Mohammed, who came to the United States from Iraq with his wife eight years ago, said attending the Memorial Day events was a way to say thank you to the soldiers who helped liberate his native land.

"We came to share the celebration together with the American people," Al-Mohammed said. "This year we are very happy because our old president is gone. We've got freedom in our country."

In Waterford, Conn., the parents of a Marine killed in Iraq who waited weeks to hear word about his fate went forward with a parade despite heavy rain. Paul and Tan Patchem, the parents of Cpl. Kemaphoom Chanawongse, took part in a parade that wound through mostly empty, soaked streets.

For people with loved ones still in Iraq or Afghanistan, the holiday was a time for contemplation. Kathryn Gerke of Powell, Ohio, whose son Patrick is in Kuwait as a lance corporal in the Marines, got more than 40 people with relatives overseas to fill a page of thoughts for the holiday.

The pages of handwritten missives, neatly typed poems and photographs of soldiers and their families were compiled into booklets to be sent overseas.

At the cemetery in Timonium, Schafer stood next to a wall with the names of 21 Maryland residents who have been killed by terrorists -- including victims in the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, and one who died in Afghanistan. He said his thoughts were with other members of his 3rd Infantry Division still stationed in Iraq.

"I just want them to come home," he said.


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