Heavy crowds turned out Monday for Memorial Day services around Ventura County, exceeding past turnouts and in at least one case topping the number who came to honor the dead after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The 1,000 people converging at Ivy Lawn Memorial Park in Ventura looked like a possible record to retired Col. George Compton, master of ceremonies.
"The only time all the chairs were filled was after 9/11, and this was overflow today," he said.
Terri Taylor Gonzalez, president of Ivy Lawn, tied the turnout to a surge in patriotism as well as publicity about the 40th annual observance. Veterans said the recent death of Osama bin Laden probably played a role, along with support for the armed forces.
"People are beginning to appreciate the military," said retired dentist Bill Stewart, 85, a Port Hueneme man who served during three wars.
Across the county in Moorpark, Assistant City Manager Hugh Riley said bin Laden's death May 2 and the upcoming 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 have unified Americans.
Nor is the threat over, he said, reminding those attending an observance at the Moorpark Veterans' Memorial of the risk military forces take. The Vietnam veteran said seven soldiers lost their lives in a single blast in Afghanistan last week.
"We must never forget what it means to be an American and never take for granted the sacrifices of those brave men and women who gave their lives so we might live in freedom as Americans," Riley said.
Veterans attending Memorial Day services around Ventura County fought in wars from World War II to Afghanistan. They came from every branch of the service to honor their comrades.
Matt Valenzuela, a sergeant in the Marine Corps and vice commander of American Legion Post 502, spoke in Moorpark about the soldiers he served with during the Korean conflict.
"I'm sure some of the veterans here today joined because you saw a poster that said, 'Join the service and see the world.' We joined, we served, we saw the world, and some of us never returned," said Valenzuela, who urged those in attendance to observe a moment of silence for the fallen warriors.
Army veteran Ramiro Delao, who was injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq, said he comes to the annual observances to support his fellow soldiers who died fighting the war on terrorism.
"I got to serve my country," said the 30-year-old Camarillo resident, who attended the Ivy Lawn ceremony. "I don't think there's any greater honor than that."
Delao and his wife, Vanessa Delao, brought their two daughters, ages 6 and 2, to the observance. Vanessa Delao said she wanted her children to know what the day is about, referring to keynote speaker Navy Capt. James McHugh's words that the holiday is to honor those who have died serving their country, not just a day off work.
Air Force Maj. Matt Glynn, who served four tours in Iraq and is now stationed with the Air National Guard at Point Mugu, expressed the same sentiment. He brought his 4-year-old son to an observance in Westlake Village.
"I just wanted to show my son what Memorial Day is about and honor the friends I have lost after being in the military for 13 years now," he said at the event at Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks Memorial Park. "It means a lot to me and I want my son to see that."
Officials said nearly 3,000 people attended the event at the Westlake cemetery, about 500 more than they expected.
"We came just to honor the veterans," said Nicole Krumian of Agoura Hills as she and her family attended the annual event organized by the Conejo-Simi Valley Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.
"It's because of them that our country is defended and that we're protected, and I want my kids to see it and understand it and feel pride in their country," she said.
Rabbi Shimon Paskow urged the crowd to remember all who gave their lives in service of their country, from the Revolutionary War to modern-day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We recall the people who served, the battles that were fought, the hardships endured, the sacrifices that were made and above all, our dear and beloved friends and relatives who gave their lives on land, sea and air for the values we as Americans cherish," said the retired Army colonel.
At a Camarillo ceremony, speaker Michael Blaauw admitted he was a bit nervous, then struck a somber note.
"How we all doing?" the naval chief petty officer said in a Southern drawl at the observance that drew several hundred people to Conejo Mountain Funeral Home and Memorial Park.
"Welcome to the 46th annual Lest We Forget Memorial Day service. I've lost a little of my mojo, being first to speak, because I'm not used to it. But we're going to make something happen today."
Blaauw read the poem "No, Freedom Isn't Free" by retired U.S. Coast Guard Cmdr. Kelly Strong. The poet tells of seeing a young Marine in uniform saluting the American flag, then of lives cut short.
"I thought of all the children, of the mothers and the wives," Blaauw said, "of fathers, sons and husbands with interrupted lives. I thought about a graveyard at the bottom of the sea, of unmarked graves in Arlington. No, freedom isn't free."
Blaauw continued with an accounting of the terrorist suicide bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. Seventeen sailors lost their lives and 39 were injured on Oct. 12, 2000.
"Even when America is not at war, our men and women in the armed forces are striving to preserve peace," he said.
Other observances were held Monday at tiny Bardsdale Cemetery, downtown Ojai, Santa Paula Cemetery, Simi Valley and the new veterans home in Ventura.