Monday, May 28, 2012 | 6:32 p.m.
A lone soldier in military fatigues walked up and down green lawns blanketed with American flags, pausing briefly in front of each headstone.
Staff Sgt. Bryan Griggs silently read each name and moved on to the next. There are more than 23,000 headstones at the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Boulder City.
Griggs sighed and choked back a tear. The Las Vegas resident and National Guard member served in the Army for 13 years, including five tours – totaling seven years – in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Every Memorial Day – no matter where in the world he is stationed – Griggs tries to visit a nearby cemetery to pay his respects to all those who have fought and died for his country, he says.
“I think about all the people I’ve left behind,” he says, a tear streaming down his cheek. “I just got back from Iraq last year.”
A mother with two children in tow walks up, prodding her young boys forward.
“Thank you for serving our country,” they tell Griggs. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he replies. “I see it as just a job. Someone’s got to do it.”
Hundreds of people gathered for a poignant Memorial Day ceremony at the cemetery on Monday to pay solemn tribute to those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
Along the highway leading up to the cemetery, cars were backed up for miles. Inside the cemetery chapel, the seats were packed with people, overflowing to both sides of the patio and outside the doors.
Richard Small, the commander of the Military Order Purple Heart that sponsored the ceremony, called on all the veterans in the crowd to be recognized. A few dozen – some in wheelchairs, others nursing fresh wounds – responded.
“Heroes everyone,” Small said. “God bless you.”
For the next two hours, several speakers took to the lectern, offering their words of gratitude to the more than 200,000 veterans and active duty soldiers and their families living in Nevada. Among the speakers were Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sens. Harry Reid and Dean Heller, Reps. Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck and Boulder City Mayor Roger Tobler.
Sandoval thanked members of the Nevada Army National Guard’s 593rd Transportation Company, which left Monday for a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan. There were two sets of brothers as well as a father of a two-week old baby in this unit, Sandoval said.
“We are truly a grateful state, people and nation,” he said.
In a pledge to help returning veterans, Sandoval announced plans for additional veterans service officers in his administration and an infusion of $7 million in state and federal funds to expand and improve the Southern Nevada Veterans Memorial Cemetery.
Other speakers talked about personal military ties while recognizing the veterans.
Heck – an Army veteran – sang energetically alongside other veterans as the Nevada Opera Theater and the Peoples Valley choruses performed. Heller and Berkley both spoke of various family members – fathers, a brother and a husband – who served in the military.
Despite the somber tone of the ceremony, Berkley shared a lighter moment with the audience when she unexpectedly whipped up a toast for Air Force Capt. Joe Ruotolo, 27, who proposed Sunday to Berkley staffer Jessi Hotchkiss after he returned home from Afghanistan on Sunday.
The proposal at McCarran International Airport came as a surprise to Hotchkiss, 26, who is a district representative with Berkley’s office charged with handling veterans claims and issues. Hotchkiss said she was grateful to have her fiancée home after a four-month deployment.
“I had no idea he was going to propose,” she said, smiling. “I’m just glad he’s home.”
Others have not been so lucky, as several speakers noted. Nevada has lost 78 soldiers since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “An incredible toll on a small state like Nevada,” Heck said.
“Our nation has always asked too much or our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, and their families and friends,” he said. “Their loss is really beyond bearing. And yet bear it they have, and bear it we will.”
Marina Vance is one of those who is still trying to bear the loss of a loved one. The Henderson resident wore a T-shirt emblazoned with a gold star – symbolizing her membership in the Gold Star Mothers, a group that supports those who lost a son or daughter in conflict. Below the star stitching was a photograph of her son, Army Spc. Ignancio Ramirez.
Ramirez – a 2001 Basic High School graduate – died on August 9, 2006, from an improvised explosive device while driving a Humvee through the streets of Ramadi, Iraq. His tomb is located at the Southern Nevada cemetery, Vance said.
Memorial Day is often hard for mothers like her, Vance said, but she always wills herself to come honor her son and all those who didn’t make it out from the fog of war alive.
“It’s a really hard day. I miss my son a lot,” she said, tears welling up in her eyes. “You feel bad, but at the same time, you have to think about all the others out there fighting for us.”