“For most people, Memorial Day is all about things like barbecues, swimming pools, ball games or even drinking a local craft brew during Asheville Beer Week — it’s simply the Monday of a three-day holiday weekend that marks the start of summer,” said Major General Rick Devereaux, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force during his remarks at the Asheville-Buncombe Memorial Day celebration. “But for the more thoughtful, I would argue this is our most sobering national holiday.”
Despite gray skies and sporadic rain showers, a crowd of more than 200 gathered in Pack Square Park on May 29 to pay tribute to fallen veterans and local emergency responders. Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman and representatives from different branches of the military, as well as local police and fire departments, presented a wreath to honor the fallen.
“This is not a day for honoring veterans, that’s Veteran’s Day. It’s not a day for recognizing active-duty service members, that’s Armed Forces Day. And frankly, it’s not even a day to celebrate our freedom and democracy, that’s Independence Day. No, this is Memorial Day, the day that we honor those who did not come back, those who are not here today,” Devereaux said.
Veterans from all military branches and wars since World War II filled the crowded park. During the ceremony, veterans were invited to stand as the 82nd Airborne Division Brass Quintet, which is based at Ft. Bragg, played songs of the armed forces.
During his remarks, Devereaux solemnly stated that 20 Asheville residents have been killed in combat since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. While that may seem like a small fraction of the city’s population, he said, it makes the magnitude of each and every sacrifice incalculable.
“I don’t want to imply that every war our nation has fought has been totally just, or that our objectives were always pure, or that our strategies were always perfect. But what we can say is that when America has gone to war, its men and women have fought and died for the right reason, putting the life and liberty of their fellow citizens ahead of their own,” Devereaux said.
Larry Wilbanks was just one of the many veterans in attendance. After serving in the U.S. Army 1964-1967, he said, he views the holiday differently than most.
“I’m here to honor our veterans that gave the ultimate sacrifice. I guess to me, that means the attachment to whoever that person might be, or the love of your country and all the freedoms we have,” he said. “We’re a lucky country.”
Daniel Lowman, a junior at T.C. Roberson High School, decided to spend his day off from school passing out American flags at the event with his Boy Scout troop. Although neither he nor any of his immediate family members have served in the military, he still feels the importance of the holiday.
“Memorial Day is a time to reflect on the sacrifices that other people have made,” Lowman said. “In current society, a lot of people don’t really show gratitude for what they have, and so Memorial Day is a time to think back and realize a lot of people made the ultimate sacrifice so we can be happy on a day-to-day basis and have a good quality of life.”
The ceremony concluded with patriotic anthems by the Reuter Center Singers, a rifle volley salute by the Asheville Police Department and a moment of silence to honor the fallen.
“As tragic as the United States’ wars have been, without the collective sacrifice of the brave dead we honor today, this wonderful experiment called the United States of America simply would not exist,” Devereaux said. “And furthermore, this freewheeling, diverse, eclectic place called Asheville, N.C., would not enjoy the unique freedoms that make this city, our city, so special.”
All photos by Molly Horak