More than 160 people — double the turnout from last year — gathered Monday for the annual Community Memorial Day service at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in Columbus.

Attendance was also up for the service preceding it in the veterans sections of Garland Brook Cemetery.

Mild temperatures and abundant sunshine played a factor in attracting larger crowds to Memorial Day events. However, social media has also helped make more people aware of the impact that casualties of war leave behind, AMVETS commander Rick Caldwell said.

For example, memes depicting a young woman and her baby lying across a soldier’s grave, a widow on an air mattress in front of her husband’s casket, and a loyal dog laying wait at his Navy Seal master’s coffin have been circulating on Facebook since late last week.

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“More people are bringing those images out, so that people can see the magnitude of what family members go through,” Caldwell said. “It’s powerful.”

While more than 12 percent of the U.S. population served in the armed forces during World War II, makeup of the nation’s armed forces reflects less than one-half of a percent today, the The Associated Press reported.

That means a growing number of Americans are not personally acquainted with a fallen soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, said Deb Kleinschmidt of Columbus, the mother of Marine Sgt. Jeremy McQueary, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010.

“I’m glad these other mothers didn’t have to go through what I went through,” the Gold Star mother said. “But sometimes, we forget that we just have a few who are keeping us free.”

The U.S. has been served by an all-volunteer military since 1973, which makes their willing sacrifices more significant, Kleinschmidt said.

Although social media memes can stir empathy, many who attended one of Monday’s ceremonies showed emotions and losses on a personal level.

“Many of us are here in moments of sorrow, as we recall the death, the wounding, the hurt, the suffering of many who have served in our nation’s wars,” said retired U.S. Army chaplain Col. Richard Yeaton in prayer. “We need your peace in our hearts.”

The city’s first ceremony of the morning was the tossing of rose petals into East Fork White River from the Robert N. Stewart Bridge by the Bartholomew County Honor Guard and members of the auxiliaries of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War organizations.

Specifically held to commemorate Naval personnel buried at sea, the ceremony is especially important to those who never saw the remains of their loved ones and were denied the opportunity to say goodbye, said Johnnie Travis, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1987.

“It’s awful difficult for these families to get closure,” Travis said. “As time goes on, it may lessen your pain. But when you take a few moments to think about it, your heart swells, the tears come, and you don’t know what to do.”

With more than 3,000 veterans buried in Garland Brook Cemetery, the 10 a.m. ceremony held there annually since 1972 is designed to be more religious in substance.

Serving as chaplain, Navy Lt. Commander Reeves Flint read Scriptures while standing next to a monument displaying a military belt, boots and helmet on a cross.

At the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans, Betty Nolting seemed surprised when she found the name of her cousin, Carl Hege (1916-1944), on one of the towering monument pillars.

“I got one card from him at home,” said Nolting, who was 12 when her cousin was killed in battle. “It said ‘I missed saying goodbye to you.’”

During the 11 a.m. community service, Nancy Pence Fritsch — the mother of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, the former Indiana governor and Columbus native — listened carefully as John C. Walter, a retired Air Force bombardier who served during World War II, delivered the keynote address.

“Not only were soldiers killed in wars, but they could be wounded in various ways and degrees,” Walter said. “Even those who survived without a physical wound may hold memories that can be as devastating as a wound of the flesh.”

After Walter reflected back on three of his comrades who died in Europe fighting against Nazi Germany, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

“I was so moved,” Fritsch said. “John Walter is a phenomenal man.”

But the vice president’s mother said she was equally moved by the words of master of ceremonies John Foster, who said that every war has left mothers wondering why their child had to die.

“Long ago, another mother asked: ‘Heavenly father, why did my son have to die on a cross outside Jerusalem?’” said Foster, an Air Force veteran and recipient of the Patriot Award. “The answer to all of these questions is the same. So that others might have life, dwell in peace, happiness and freedom.”

“Beautiful,” Fritsch said. “That was very meaningful.”

More Memorial Day ceremonies

  • Members of American Legion Post 229 Honor Guard participated Monday in eight ceremonies in and around Hope: Sharon Cemetery, Newbern Cemetery, Hartsville Town Square, Hawcreek Church Cemetery, Simmons Cemetery, Old St. Louis Cemetery, Hawcreek Bridge and ending at the Veterans Memorial at Moravian Cemetery south of the Hope Town Square.
  • The Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, John B. Anderson Camp 223, conducted three Civil War Veterans Memorial Day ceremonies in Bartholomew County — at the Columbus City Cemetery, Springer Cemetery and Newsom Cemetery, where a special tribute was made for Sgt. Jariah B. Dinkins, 19th Indiana Infantry, a Bartholomew County native who was among Union soldiers to guard President Lincoln after he was shot.
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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.