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Emotions are profound as veterans express the meaning of sacrifice

The memories they have aren't the type that can be repressed. The horrors they've watched are too vivid. The pain they've endured, too strong.

War is part of veterans. It haunts them. It strengthens them. It stays with them forever.

"War stories? I don't talk about war stories. That's something I don't want to retell, something too difficult to tell," said Richard Hollister, president of the United Veterans Council of the Tonawandas.

Hollister was one of several veterans who gathered at various locations throughout Western New York on Sunday to commemorate those who served the country in wartime. Memorial Day ceremonies and parades honored every service branch and every specialty: from soldiers and sailors to pilots and electricians.

And with each passing year, these observances are more meaningful to veterans -- as many fear that the respect and remembrance of their sacrifice is dwindling as younger generations become increasingly detached from some of the wars that these veterans fought.

"People are beginning to view us like we're someone else's employees, just doing our jobs," said John N. Smith, 85, a member of the Seabee Veterans of America. "This country has changed. I do a lot of walking around the mall and look at those kids and lose hope."

But each Memorial Day weekend, Smith's mind-set changes. A resident of the City of Tonawanda, the World War II veteran participated in a Services at Sea ceremony on Remembrance Bridge in North Tonawanda at noon Sunday, and then rode alongside other Seabees in a parade at 1:30.

Sitting on a wooden chair on the back of a trailer, he had a wide grin.

"That parade's amazing," Smith said. "The people are all clapping and cheering for you -- we don't get that all the time. It's so special."

In addition to services on Memorial Day, programs year-round are working to bring awareness to veteran commemoration. Smith took part last year in Honor Flight, a nonprofit organization that flies World War II veterans to view the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

When he stepped off the flight, people were lined up in two rows saluting him, and wanting to shake his hand.

Veterans are continually approached by people and thanked for their service at the memorial, said veteran Norm Hameister, a Seabee member who has been on all the Honor Flight Buffalo trips thus far and works as a guardian. "About 900 World War II veterans are dying every day," he said. "We need to make it a priority that they continue to be honored."

In West Seneca, 91-year-old veteran Earle Heusinger works to educate younger generations on the importance of honoring veterans and remembering their service. A World War II veteran who served in the Army for 36 years, he has spoken to students at West Seneca, Orchard Park and Frontier high schools.

"How am I supposed to describe to them a four-year war in 20 minutes?" he said. "War is not nice, I tell them. War is hell. But then I ask them what it would be like to not go to the movies, to not do the things they're doing. To not be free?"

Heusinger has been attending the Memorial Day ceremony at St. Matthew's Cemetery in West Seneca since its inception in 1999, and used to play taps.

More than 3,000 service veterans are buried at the cemetery, and 30 have died while in service, said Janice Burnett, cemetery administrator.

Each year, the service honors additional veterans who have died in the past year. This year's ceremony honored seven, and included the hoisting of a new flag followed by a gun salute.