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THE COST OF FREEDOM
ON THIS MEMORIAL DAY, THE TELEVISED BATTLES IN IRAQ HAVE BROUGHT INTO FULL FOCUS THE SACRIFICES OF COMBAT VETERANS PAST AND PRESENT

The emotional impact of Memorial Day is bound to be deeper this year -- the year of war in Iraq.

The nearness of war, broadcast into the nation's living rooms, has brought back the past for those who fought for their country long ago.

"It's closer to home," said Frank Herod, 71, who served with the Army in Korea during the early 1950s. "Everybody watched the war in Iraq and we were reminded what war is all about.

"Some people think Memorial Day is just part of a three-day holiday, or the beginning of summer. But when you go overseas and fight in a war, like I did in Korea, then you know what war means, and you know what Memorial Day means."

Memorial Day is a time for "thinking of my buddies who were killed," said Herod, a member of American Legion Post 721 in South Buffalo. But, he adds, Memorial Day isn't just for the dead, it's for all who served.

"I think the meaning of Memorial Day has slipped over the years because people became complacent," said Louis Palma, 75, director of Erie County Veterans Services, who saw action in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "But this war was so televised, it became a part of you for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, I think it has brought Memorial Day to the forefront again."

Chief Master Sgt. Gerry Leo returned home from the war in Iraq earlier this month after serving with the 914th Airlift Wing of the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Base.

"Memorial Day means more this year because we're thinking about the soldiers and we realize they are still dying for what we believe in," he said.

Leo, 58, joined the Air Force in 1963, served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War and other major conflicts. He deployed for the war in Iraq on March 6.

"I'm always touched on Memorial Day," he said. "It's very meaningful for me because I've been a soldier for so long. I was destined to be a soldier."

Attitudes in the United States have changed since Leo returned from his first war in Vietnam.

"Back then, we came home and people were burning flags; now they're waving them," Leo said. "I think people now understand what the flag means."

For Leo, patriotism also means duty.

"I believe in what we're doing in Iraq, and I believe it more every time I fly a mission or see a soldier," he said.

Master Sgt. Patrick Guthrie, 53, constantly carries a Memorial Day reminder with him. His late father, John, served in World War II and named his son after a fellow soldier who was killed in combat.

"Interest in Memorial Day is always heightened by a fresh war," said Guthrie, a senior military instructor at Canisius College who served in the Gulf War. "I remember writing my son during the Gulf War: 'I'm here fighting so you won't have to fight here.' Well, he's 23 and if he wasn't in college, he might have been fighting."

Fresh or not, wars leave their mark.

"On Memorial Day, I usually go to a graveyard," Guthrie said. "When I'm back home in Huntington, W.Va., I'll visit my father's grave."

This year he will return to Huntington, and the family of Army Pvt. Jessica Lynch -- an American prisoner of war in Iraq who was rescued -- is expected to be there for a "rally for America."

Despite the expected huge crowd and celebration, it will be a time of mixed feelings for Guthrie.

"It's a very emotional day for me. Some of my best friends went to Vietnam. A good friend of mine was a Vietnam veteran who was scarred by that war. He came back and abused drugs. He died about a year ago," he said.

Guthrie also worries about World War II veterans, who are aging and dying. "I feel like we're losing a great part of American society," he said. "We only have so many chances to salute these World War II veterans. We should go out of our way, especially on Memorial Day, to let them know we appreciate what they did for us."

The same holds true for today's soldiers.

"I think the Iraq war helps the younger vets, my generation, understand what Memorial Day really means," said Maria Mendell, 27. She was in the Navy for seven years, starting in 1993. Mendell now works as a patient service assistant at Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The war in Iraq also "gives people a better appreciation of what the men and women in the military sacrifice for their country," Mendell said. "When I was in the Navy, the biggest sacrifice was being away from my family. But it's worth it because you believe in what you're doing and you become part of a bigger family."

A different perspective

For Korean War veteran Herod, there's a simple way to get to the heart of the meaning of this holiday.

"You want to know what Memorial Day means?" Herod asked. "Go to the VA Hospital. Look at the veterans. You'll know what it means."

The atmosphere at a veterans hospital is far different than the parades and picnics of Memorial Day. Especially on a dreary and chilly May morning, when the Buffalo Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Bailey Avenue was pelted by a steady rain.

The parking lot was jammed. Inside, waiting areas were crowded and the rooms and wards bustled with activity. Old World War II veterans walked with canes. There are middle-aged Vietnam vets in chairs, and a smaller number of younger men and women who seem freshly out of the uniforms they wore during the Gulf War era of the '90s.

Tracy Kinn, 36, sat behind a desk in a small office.

"Look around this hospital and you will see that here, every day is Memorial Day," said Kinn, a disabled veteran who served in the United States Marine Corps from 1987 until '91. "It's not a one day a year thing. We should always respect our veterans for what they have done for us."

Kinn broke her back in a combat training exercise and just missed serving in the Gulf War. She is now a veterans counselor for New York State.

Memorial Day, for Kinn, will be another reminder of how the recent war in Iraq hit home. She was part of the Marines casualty assistance team when Marine Lance Cpl. Eric J. Orlowski of Cheektowaga was killed in Iraq.

Kinn worked with the family on such details as burial, veterans assistance and benefits and other matters.

"Working with Eric Orlowski's family had a dramatic effect on me, as far as Memorial Day goes," Kinn said. "Eric actually died in the combat zone. Knowing that brought the reality of war to me personally.

"Unless you really experience somebody who died as a result of war, Memorial Day isn't quite the same. I used to think of it as a time to pay respects; now I think of it as a time when I lost a friend. Now, when you put a flag down on a grave, you know what it means."

Like family

For veterans, Memorial Day is a time to remember that extended family.

"It hurts, because you see the war on TV and you're not there and you want to be there with the soldiers," said Greg Szarpa, 51, who has served in the Navy and Air Force Reserve and is commander of AmVets Post 72. "When we lost our soldiers, it hits us so hard. I think Memorial Day is a day to deal with those feelings. If you can't take one day a year to think about that, then something's wrong."

Sam Feaster, 47, who served in the Marines during the Vietnam era, recently talked about Memorial Day with his daughter, Samantha, 12.

"She asked me what is Memorial Day," Feaster said. "I told her she has the freedom to walk down the street and say what she wants because of the men and women who fight and die in wars. Memorial Day brings us closer to the soldiers who gave us that freedom."

One is Tech. Sgt. Bonnie Pijanowski, now in the Middle East serving with the 914th Airlift Wing. She wrote in an e-mail:

"Memorial Day has always been special to me. When I lived in Ransomville, I always participated in the VFW's Memorial Day ceremony at old Fort Niagara cemetery.

"Memorial Day will always be a special day in my heart and now with this war, I will remember all of my friends and the families that have lost loved ones."

e-mail: aviolanti@buffnews.com

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