East Tennesseans honor fallen veterans on Memorial Day

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By Megan Boehnke of the Knoxville News Sentinel

K0013832209--356433A young girl dressed in a Civil War-era dress placed a purple thistle on the headstone of a fallen Union soldier at Knoxville National Cemetery Monday.

A few minutes later and several yards away, Carolyn Herron filled a vase with red roses at the grave of her husband, a Vietnam veteran who died in 1985.

“It’s important to support our military, especially since the veterans of the Vietnam era got such shoddy treatment,” Herron said.

Herron and the re-enactors were among hundreds of people across East Tennessee who honored fallen veterans on Memorial Day.

At World’s Fair Park, the names of men and women from 35 East Tennessee counties who died during active service in the military were read aloud beginning at sunrise. In Alcoa, a celebration included a motorcycle procession led by the East Tennessee Veterans Honor Guard. In Oak Ridge, the community band offered a free Memorial Day concert dedicated to veterans.

Hiske Jones attended the service at the national cemetery on Tyson Street with her two children, Elly, 11, and Harrison, 9. It was their first time attending a memorial service on Memorial Day, and she plans to return next year with her family, including her husband who is a pilot in the Air National Guard.

“We just wanted to do something to honor the fallen veterans,” she said. “We’d never been to a service like this, and we didn’t have anything going on today and wanted to come out and do what the day was supposed to be about.”

The service kicked off with a nine-man re-enactment of the 79th New York Highlanders, a Union regiment in the Civil War that spent six months fighting in East Tennessee, said Shane Miles, one of the actors.

The group marched with flags through the cemetery to a bugle playing “Taps.” William Beard, the group’s musician and historian, gave a short speech on the importance of the day and the legacy of the Highlanders.

“It’s an honor for us, for you all, to pay homage to every soldier here —whether in the Civil War when this cemetery was started or current conflicts,” Beard told the crowd.

A woman wearing a hoop skirt and small children dressed in costume placed flowers on stones for the soldiers.

The cemetery was established by the Union in 1863 — while still in the throes of the war. The first men buried there had been exhumed from Cumberland Gap and other places in the region, said Mike Downs, the department commander for the Sons of the Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Tennessee supplied more than 31,000 men who fought for the Union and suffered 6,776 casualties, Downs said. The cemetery went on to include soldiers who fought in subsequent U.S. wars.

At World’s Fair Park, about 45 minutes after the ceremony at Knoxville National Cemetery, a large contingent gathered for another ceremony hosted by the American Legion Post 2.

Dozens of people gathered under pop-up tents at the plaza of a memorial for fallen veterans. Behind them, children climbed on a playground and ran across fountains in the park.

Eddie Mannis, the president of Prestige Cleaners and founder of Honor Air Knoxville, which provides trips to Washington, D.C., for veterans wishing to visit war memorials, gave the keynote speech.

Honor Air, founded in 2008, has flown more than 2,700 veterans on 20 trips, Mannis said. The group will take its 21st trip on June 8.

“Time after time I hear the people who have travelled with us say that their visits to the memorials is a lifetime of reflection and a way to honor the memory of those who never made it back home,” Mannis said. “While we are here today to cherish the memory of those who have come before and sacrificed their lives, we are reminded to do everything in our power to support our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that are still here with us.”

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