Lora Gaddy clenched a crumpled tissue as tears streamed down her face.
The bagpiper was playing “Amazing Grace” during the pre-Memorial Day ceremony Sunday at Fort Mitchell National Cemetery. And this was the first observance of this solemn holiday since her husband was buried here in August.
Elton Keith Gaddy was a lieutenant commander after five years of service in the Navy. He became a VA internal medicine doctor in Montgomery, Tuskegee and Columbus before he lost his 10-year battle with prostate cancer. Now, his remains share this hallowed ground with some of the veterans he treated.
“I’m overwhelmed,” Gaddy, who also served in the Navy, nine years as a hospital corpsman, told the Ledger-Enquirer. “You know, they call Fort Mitchell the Arlington of the South — and, believe me, it’s beautiful out here.”
Gaddy, who lives in the town of Fort Mitchell, described her husband as “the best physician, the funniest person I knew. I think about him now, and I think about him often. ... He was a kind and loving person.”
Although she was mournful, Gaddy also felt grateful and hopeful.
“I thank God for the men and women that have served this country to make us all free,” she said. “Sometimes we take that for granted. We have a lot of work to do in this country.”
Still, she oozed pride.
“I’m proud to be an American,” she said. “In the United States, we have some issues, but I’m proud of the freedoms we have here, our liberties, and we have to work to keep those liberties.”
Paula Clark of Phenix City also had a new reason to be at this ceremony.
It’s her first year on the cemetery’s support committee. She was motivated to join after a friend, former Marine Corps Sgt. Walter Grizzle Jr., was buried at Fort Mitchell. While visiting his grave, she met Todd Newkirk, the cemetery’s assistant director, “and I was very impressed with him,” she told the Ledger-Enquirer, “and I just really think it’s neat how they do things here for these wonderful souls who gave everything.”
Clark was among the more than 200 volunteers who helped ensure each of the approximately 9,500 graves at Fort Mitchell has beside it a miniature -- and upright -- American flag in time for Memorial Day.
“It’s very important that these grounds are taken care of,” Clark said. “A lot of dreams never got fulfilled because a lot of these men and women were in their 20s when they gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
She recalled childhood memories of news reports from the Vietnam War and seeing soldiers not being welcomed home.
“I’ve just loved my country,” Clark said. “That statement, that freedom isn’t free, it really isn’t.”
Fort Mitchell is among the 135 national cemeteries, comprising approximately 4.6 million graves, operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“The legacy of freedom is their gift to us,” said the ceremony’s guest speaker, Brig. Gen. Jerry Martin, the assistant adjutant general of the Alabama Army National Guard.
Martin asked the service members and veterans in attendance to stand.
“Thank you for answering the call to duty,” he said. “You have made our armed forces the most respected in the world.”
And the general asked the relatives of service members and veterans to stand.
“We know you have lived through difficult times and often have taken the heavy load to keep the home fires burning,” he said. “Thank you for what you’ve done.”
Newkirk asked the audience two questions as piercing as those bagpipes: “So what can we do? What should we do?”
Then he offered an answer.
“We have to remember our loved ones and their sacrifice,” he said. “We have to remember what they did, why they did it, and appreciate what it means to us personally and as a nation, and share it with our youth.”
Newkirk concluded with this assertion, quoting Georgie Carter-Krell, the mother of posthumous Medal or Honor recipient Marine Corps Pfc. Bruce Carter of Florida:
“Dying for freedom isn't the worst thing that can happen. Being forgotten is.”