An overcast sky on Monday morning made the reds and blues of American flags marking veteran graves at the Santa Barbara Cemetery stand out vividly as people gathered there to remember the fallen on Memorial Day.
Thousands of people gathered throughout Santa Barbara County to observe and remember, including several hundred who came together at the event sponsored by the Pierre Claeyssens Veterans Foundation.
Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Phil Conran welcomed the crowd, saying their attendance ensured the fallen would never be forgotten.
He said some members of the veterans community were not present Monday because they had flown to Europe to celebrate Memorial Day, as this year marks the 70th anniversary of when the Allies stormed Normandy.
Many U.S. soldiers died during that campaign, and many are still interred in the 24 cemeteries that the U.S. government maintains on foreign soil, according to Conran.
The colors were posted by the Sea Cadets, and music was provided by several groups, including the Shir Chadash Adult Choir of Congregation B'Nai B'rith and the USSB Chancel Choir of the Santa Barbara Unitarian Church, as well as directors Cantor Mark Childs and Kenneth Ryals, and the Gold Coast Pipe Band.
The program also included a presentation of wreaths as well as a flyover.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, was on hand to give her comments to the crowd, saying "it's important for our nation, and our community, to show our gratitude. This is a personal sacrifice that's been given by men and women for the sake of a greater common good."
The greatest tribute the country can give to veterans is "to make sure they're supported every step of the way," Capps said.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Fred Lopez served as Monday's keynote speaker.
He said that this year marks the 70th anniversary of Operation Overlord, the invasion of German-occupied Western Europe via Normandy, France. The Americans saw more than 125,000 killed, wounded or missing during that campaign.
Lopez recalled traveling to Europe with his wife several years ago and crossing the English Channel on the anniversary of D-Day and toured the battlefields of Normandy.
"It covers 172 acres and contains the remains of 9,387 American Military Dead," Lopez said.
Against the deep green grass of the cemetery are "endless rows of strikingly white crosses and Stars of David," he said. "It will take your breath away."
Seeing the panorama, Lopez said he felt his chest start to tighten and tears started to fall.
"It can make your heart ache for the fathers and mothers who never got to see their sons return," he said, adding that each grave marker faces in the same direction — west — "towards home."