Gordon Gaul knew it would be a day of tears. At Mount Hope Cemetery, where 14,000 veterans are buried, he shifted his sunglasses Sunday and walked slowly, alone past the small gravestones festooned with American flags, searching for his father’s grave.
Gaul comes to visit the grave on Memorial Day and on his father’s birthday. For Gaul, a Roxbury resident, serving in the military runs in his blood. He was 9 when his father, Gordon Gaul Sr., a World War I veteran, died. A decade later, Gaul served two years as a Marine in Vietnam.
As he walked, he said he was thinking about the cost of freedom.
“People just don’t understand,” he said, as tears fell on his cheeks. “Life here in America is not free, because we got these brave guys that go out there every day and protect our freedom.”
Yards away, about 75 people gathered for the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery to honor the fallen troops, and surviving veterans. The observance, organized by American Legion District 7, Suffolk County, featured color guards, a gun salute, and a band that played military signature anthems such as “The Army Goes Rolling Along.”
Speakers included Boston’s veterans services commissioner, Francisco Urena; Massachusetts veterans services commissioner, Ken Turner; and Boston city councilors Felix Arroyo, Michael Ross, and Charles Yancey. Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston, who typically speaks at the event, was not in attendance.
Urena urged veterans to share their stories and experiences with friends and neighbors. Looking out at the thousands of gravestones marked with small American flags, he said, “We remember them for what they stood for, for who they were, and for who they continue to be.”
Turner said America’s democracy and society was a foundation that soldiers have protected for centuries.
“What is it that inspires and enables ordinary citizens to rise to the challenge of battle? To be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice of their lives in the service of their country,” Turner said. “What is it that motivates them to respond and contribute wherever or whenever they are called upon to do so? The answer is values.”
The crowd, which was filled with mostly veterans, listened quietly. Some wore uniforms; others sported berets, hats, and jackets bearing the name of their divisions or ships.
John Reilly wore a windbreaker with USS Hyman written on the back. The Roslindale man last stood on the Navy ship 60 years ago, when he fought in the Korean War. Now 82, he was thinking about five friends who were washed overboard and whose bodies were never found. He comes every year to this memorial “to remember and honor those who have served.”
Cynthia Shelton, who lives in Dorchester, served as an Army sergeant in Somalia. She also comes from a military family, where she was taught not to take freedom for granted.
“The reason we have Memorial Day is not just for barbecues,” she said.
Nearby, James Flattes wore a matching blue uniform, beret, and a tie that spelled out “Army.’’ Flattes is 78, and lives in Boston. More than 60 years ago, he was underage when he enlisted in the Army at 16.
Asked what he learned in the military, he said, “I learned how to be a man.”
Every year, he returns to the cemetery and places American flags alongside graves with other veterans from the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign War, and with the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and high school Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps.
On Monday, several Memorial Day events are scheduled in Boston.
At 8 a.m., a service will be held at Fogg-Roberts American Legion Post 78 in Hyde Park. At 9:30 a.m., the Gardens at Gethsemane service will take place in West Roxbury. At 11 a.m., a service will be held at Evergreen Cemetery in Brighton.
At 1 p.m., Veterans For Peace and several other organizations will host a “Memorial Day for Peace” event at Christopher Columbus Park, alongside Atlantic Avenue.
Also, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., the city of Boston will sponsor an outdoor concert at Christopher Columbus Park. The concert will feature the Metropolitan Wind Symphony and the Boston City Singers.
“Memorial Day is about honoring those who served and gave their lives for our freedom, and I am proud to introduce this moving musical tribute,” Menino said in a statement.