Memorial Day

Remembering fallen heroes at the RI Veteran's Cemetery

With my home in Rhode Island, I can’t drive all the way to San Antonio where my Dad was laid to rest with a three volleys of gunfire and the distant sound of a bugle playing taps when I want to remember him. My mother has the neatly folded flag that once draped his coffin on the mantle next to his medals, but I don’t have that here in Rhode Island to remember the hero who taught me to be a man. So on melancholy days, on days of significance to his memory, and on days like Memorial Day when the whole world recognizes heroes, I go to the Rhode Island Veterans Cemetery in Exeter to remember my personal hero by honoring his fallen brothers.


My wife is a born-and-bred Rhode Islander, and over the years several members of her extended family have been buried here. She points out the plots with long familiarity as we stroll from monument to monument, occasionally dipping into the woods along the hiking trail then emerging into the sun-soaked fields to stop at another marker for yet another of her relatives who had served the nation.

Past the extensive Korean War Veterans’ Memorial, down the trails to a field half-hidden in the back of the 265-acre cemetery, we find the marker she could find with her eyes closed. “Here’s Uncle Herb and Aunt Barbara’s spot,” she would say, and we’d stop for a moment. She’ll dust off the headstone and remember playing on Herb’s farm and how Herb seemed like a giant to her as a child. I never knew Herb, but he was a South County legend, a man who earned the respect of those around him. As his wife, Aunt Barbara shares the plot with him.

Linda’s a spritual person, with a steadfast belief that an eternal reward awaits those who deserve it. I’ve never asked what she prays when we stop at Herb’s gravesite, but I always presume she’s passing along family gossip and sharing a memory of digging potatos and chasing chickens.

The first of the 145 National Cemeteries were established during the Civil War. The horrible battles of Bull Run and Shiloh had already claimed thousands, and hundreds of thousands more were destined to join them. Presently more than 3 million Americans have been honored by burial as national heroes. Many rest beneath the vertical headstones that images of Arlington National Cemetery made familiar; the cemetery at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio where my Dad is buried has the same vertical headstones, marked on the front with the name of the veteran, on the back with the name of his spouse. Here in Exeter, the markers are all horizontal, flush with the ground, making maintenance much easier.

But unlike Fort Sam Houston, the memorials along the roadways honor groups: Vietnam veterans, women in the military, veterans who served on submarines, Coast Guard veterans, veterans who were Masons – they help people remember not only the veterans buried in Exeter, but wherever in the world they’ve been put to rest.

We often visit Uncle Charlie’s grave site with Linda’s aged Aunt Jessie. Jessie was a veteran of WWII herself, reaching the rank of Chief Petty Officer before marrying Charlie and leaving the service to raise her own family. As a veteran, she has earned the right to be buried in her own plot next to Charlie.

When Jessie is with us, clearing the headstone of grass and straightening one of the little flags placed by Boy Scouts we know that in very few years we will be doing the same for her own marker.

Linda and I actively erase that sad future day from our thoughts.

Memorial Day Ceremonies are conducted annually at the Veterans Cemetery, and family members and loved ones are invited and encouraged to attend this public event. The ceremony traditionally includes the participation of both the Governor and Director of Human Services, “Striking of the Colors” and “Firing Volleys” by the Rhode Island Army National Guard and the playing of “Taps” by Bugler 88th Army Band. As in years past, the “Avenue of the Flags” will decorate the roadways within the grounds. These flags, numbering over 300, have been presented to the cemetery by individuals and families in memory of deceased veterans everywhere.

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