‘A sacred duty to ensure the memory of fallen heroes are not lost’

Posted on May 31 2022

Gov. Ralph Torres is joined by veterans and distinguished guests after the laying of the wreath during the Memorial Day service yesterday morning at the CNMI Veterans Cemetery in Marpi. (LEIGH GASES)

Officials, veterans, families, and dignitaries converged at the CNMI Veterans Cemetery in Marpi yesterday for the Memorial Day ceremony that Stanley Iakopo of the CNMI Office of Veterans Affairs described as “our sacred duty to ensure that the names of our fallen heroes and their memories are not lost.”

Yesterday’s ceremony, meant to honor U.S. military personnel who have died while serving in the United States armed forces, was the first time the Veterans Cemetery was filled with people in the last two years, since the starts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event’s keynote speaker, Lt. Col. Albert S. Flores Jr. of the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, noted that there are 102 military veterans whose final resting place is at the Veterans Cemetery in Marpi, “some of whom died during active service. Some were young, some were old, but all were patriots,” he said.

As he read through the names of veterans resting in Marpi, Flores said he was drawn “to those from my own generation, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan,” particularly Army SSG W ilgene T. Lieto and Army SPC Derence W. Jack, who were both killed on Oct. 31, 2005 when an IED detonated beneath their vehicle while they were on patrol in Balad, Iraq.

“When SSG Lieto and SPC Jack were killed, I also was in Iraq, not far away from where their IED strike occurred. I note this only because I’m familiar with how difficult their mission was.  It takes a special type of person to do the job that veterans like SSG Lieto and SPC Jack were asked to do. It takes people willing to run toward the sounds of danger…” said Flores.

Iakopo, who is executive officer of the CNMI Office of Veterans Affairs, said that Memorial Day for most is a day off of work.

“It’s the start of summer. It’s a time for celebration. …But for anybody who’s lost a fallen hero, it’s one of the worst days of the year. It is inconceivable for anyone to understand who has not had his or her own heart pierced with such sadness. Which is why Memorial Day is not a Happy Memorial Day. It is our sacred duty to ensure that the names of our fallen heroes and their memories are not lost… And events held on sacred ground like this will ensure we always, always remember them… To those of you who mourn the loss of a loved one today, my heart goes out to you. This day is about you, and the fallen heroes that you love.”

Brad Ruszala, commander of the local division of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, led the solemn Memorial Tribute roll call of the fallen. After the event, Ruszala said it was the first “fully attended Memorial Day service since the pandemic broke out, so it was great to see everyone out here…”

Gov. Ralph DLG Torres was later joined by Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), as well as veterans, service members, guests, in the laying of wreaths.

Torres welcomed everyone to the ceremony and extended “a warm welcome to the military families, our dignitaries, and our community on this solemn day of remembrance. We are gathered here on this sacred ground to honor the lives and the deeds of some of our country’s and our island’s greatest heroes, the men and women who laid down their lives for our freedom, and who contributed so much to the greater good for us here. We also join the families to pay tribute to their service and remember their sacrifices. To every family here today, our islands thank you, and keep you in our prayers, and we will never forget our heroes.”

VFW members, the 22nd Legislature, Saipan Mayor David M. Apatang, judicial dignitaries, and families of fallen veterans also attended the ceremony.

The Saipan Pacific Winds Concert Band led the pre-ceremonial music, the playing of the U.S. and CNMI anthems and played Taps after the 21-gun salute done by the Department of Public Safety firing detail.

The posting and retiring of colors was done by the JROTC Saipan Southern High School, Manta Ray Battalion Color Guard.

Concluding the ceremony, four F/A-18 Hornets assigned to the Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 did a flyover of the cemetery at 10:45am, after flying over Guam Veterans Cemetery.

Leigh Gases
Leigh Gases is the youngest reporter of Saipan Tribune and primarily covers community related news, but she also handles the utilities, education, municipal, and veterans beats. Contact Leigh at leigh_gases@saipantribune.com.
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