Utahns gather — in person — to pay tribute on Memorial Day

Events honor those who died while serving as well as veterans lost during the pandemic.

i(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sgt. Aaron Reynolds performs taps to honor veterans during a service at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 31, 2021.

After 2020′s Memorial Day events were generally virtual, pushed online by the coronavirus pandemic, Utahns gathered in person once again Monday to remember those who died while serving the country.

At the Utah Capitol, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Turley, the adjutant general of the Utah National Guard, and Gary Harter, executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs, carried a small wreath and mounted it on a display below the Capitol steps. On that display were printed the names of some 650 veterans and military members from Utah who have died in the last year.

After Turley and Harter presented the wreath, three 75mm Pack Howitzers, deployed to the side of the steps, fired 21 blank rounds — a tribute to fallen service members that pierced the quiet morning air and sent acrid smoke into the cloudless sky. Then, as the smoke dissipated, an Army National Guard soldier played taps from the steps, looking over a display of 50 American flags in front of the building.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A ceremonial cannon firing honors who died in service as well as Utah veterans who passed away during the COVID-19 pandemic during a service at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 31, 2021.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah National Guard, Adjutant General, Major General Michael J. Turley salutes as veterans are honored during a service at the State Capitol in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 31, 2021.

With the ceremony, Harter said after it concluded, “we’re recognizing all those veterans who passed away over this last year, since March 2020, who never got the opportunity, many of them, to have final honors.” Many traditional funeral honors could not be performed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he noted.

The William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home in Salt Lake City was the site of one of the state’s deadliest outbreaks during the pandemic. Among the dead was the home’s namesake — Bill Christoffersen, a World War II Army soldier who went on to hold national posts with the American Legion and champion veterans. Christoffersen died May 31, 2020, at age 93.

Alain Balmanno, an Army veteran and a lawyer in the Utah Attorney General’s office, came to the ceremony wearing his medals on the pocket of his suit jacket.

“It’s important to come to these ceremonies to remember the men and women who have served and sacrificed for this country,” said Balmanno, who enlisted in the Army in 1973, served in northern Iraq during the first Gulf War, and worked in the Judge Adjutant General’s office until he retired in 2000.

“There is, I think, in our day and age, a lack of civic duty, a lack of willingness to serve for our nation in some capacity,” Balmanno said, adding that Memorial Day is meant to honor “people who have served, and who have given, many of them, with their lives or have been wounded, whether it be physically or mentally.”

Nearly 3,000 Utahns have died in conflicts around the world, according to the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.

Later Monday, at the Memorial Redwood Cemetery in West Jordan, Lt. Gov. Deidre Henderson thanked military members, veterans and their families “for your service and your sacrifice.”

Henderson recalled a visit three years ago to the Normandy American Cemetery in France, where some 9,400 Americans — many of them casualties of the D-Day invasion in 1944 — are buried.

“I thought about the monumental impact that each of those lives might have had if they’d been allowed to live, if they had raised children and made professional contributions and pursued philanthropic and scientific endeavors,” Henderson said. “I wondered then, as I wonder now, how much did the world miss because they did not live. The tragedy of their sacrifice is outweighed only by the magnitude of their gift to future generations in defending freedom from tyranny.”

Henderson’s father was an airman, she said, and her grandfather enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942 — where he learned how to fly, and captained a B-17 crew to 35 successful missions over Germany and occupied France in World War II.

“You and I may not be called upon to sacrifice our lives to secure the freedom of others,” Henderson concluded, repeating a message she delivered via Twitter last year for Memorial Day. “But it is our duty to spend our days guarding the hard-won freedoms that we inherited through the sacrifice of those who came before us.”

In West Valley City, officials broke ground on the Guardians of Freedom Memorial, a monument to honor Utahns who served and died in the military. Other events for Memorial Day took place around Utah, including in Sandy and Provo.

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall declared this Memorial Day to also be a “day of solidarity” against Asian American and Pacific Islander hate.

“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) Salt Lakers have helped shape the social and economic character of our city and nation, and exemplify resilience by being on the front lines to protect, serve, and persevere during this unprecedented global pandemic,” Mendenhall wrote in the proclamation, which she shared on Twitter on Monday afternoon.

She noted in the proclamation that hate crimes against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have surged recently, and that “we must not forget or allow unnecessary suffering inflicted by discrimination, prejudice, and harassment based on misinformation.”

Gov. Spencer Cox, in a video message posted Sunday on YouTube, paid tribute to those who died serving in the military. “Among them are Utahns who made the ultimate sacrifice, who left behind sons and daughters, wives and husbands, loved ones and neighbors,” Cox said.

Cox also noted how the COVID-19 pandemic prevented many veterans and service members from receiving military honors. “Our thoughts are with their families, as well. And we also recognize that this year has been particularly difficult for these veterans’ families,” Cox said.

“I encourage every Utahn to honor the legacy of those who did not return by caring for those who are still with us now,” Cox said. “Take the time … to reach out to your neighbor who is a veteran, or the family of somebody who made the ultimate sacrifice. Call them. Reach out with a note, or find an opportunity in your community to serve those who served us.”

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