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Somber ceremony remembers fallen servicemen and women
Bennie McDonald, a Vietnam veteran, salutes during the flag retirement ceremony Monday at Memorial Park Cemetery. McDonald served with the U.S. Army Special Forces Green Berets. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

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The meaning of Memorial Day became real Sunday for Billy Hendrix when he was setting up for Monday’s memorial service at Memorial Park Funeral Home.

Hendrix heard the sound of a wailing man in the veterans’ section of Memorial Park cemetery and started a conversation with him.

The experience humbled the cemetery’s public relations director.

"It made me realize, there’s nothing free in this country," Hendrix said. "Every one of these guys out here paid the price."

The humbling moment preceded a memorial service Monday in the cemetery in which Hendrix estimates some 700 people came to honor the sacrifices of the nation’s fallen soldiers.

Nearly all of the 300 chairs Hendrix set up for the service were full, and countless others gathered around the chairs wearing shirts and scarves bearing U.S. flags and ball caps that were inscribed with the details of their military service.

Hall County Sheriff Steve Cronic, who led the memorial service Monday at the cemetery, said he hoped it would bring attention to the importance of Memorial Day.

"It’s a fitting tribute to the great sacrifice that our citizens have made to this nation," said Cronic.

Margie and Bennie McDonald, both veterans, attended the ceremony Monday at Memorial Park. Bennie McDonald said he served two tours in Vietnam during his 21 years in special forces for the U.S. Army.

Bennie McDonald met his wife, Margie, on one tour of duty; Margie was in a supporting unit to the special forces.

Both attended Monday’s service to
remember fallen comrades and, in particular, Bennie McDonald’s best friend who died in Vietnam.

"He saved my life one time in a big battle," said Bennie McDonald. "I wasn’t there to save him. And that hurts."

The service not only was a chance for Hall County residents to honor fallen soldiers but also those who are currently serving in the military. Cronic honored U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Kevin Jarrard with the sheriff office’s top honor — the Sheriff’s Office Life Saving Award — for raising money to provide life-saving surgeries to two children he encountered while serving in Iraq. He also recognized retired U.S. Marine Corps Col. James Benson, who will take over the role as superintendent of Riverside Military Academy in June.

Selena Smith, a Gainesville resident, attended the memorial service after the Memorial Day parade in Gainesville Monday morning. Attending both the celebratory parade and the somber service seemed fitting to Smith.

"It’s Memorial Day," she said. "It honors the people that fought in the war and helps us to remember what they served for."

Exactly what those soldiers fought for, according to Smith’s father, Greg Mansur, was "freedom."