ELKHART — The name of Staff Sgt. Jesse Williams boomed over a speaker system Monday, one of 12 names read aloud at Rice Cemetery as a way to recognize local service members who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq.
And while there was probably a sense of pride in hearing his name, Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony at Rice Park in Elkhart was not easy for his mother, Debbie Passerallo.
“It’s still hard hearing his name,” Passerallo said.
Williams died in Afghanistan in December 2013 at the age of 30.
Passerallo said she arrived at the cemetery early for the late-morning ceremony and noticed some people had already visited her son’s grave.
“When it does hit close to home, you want to do what you can for the others,” she said.
Passerallo, along with family and friends, were among several hundred people who gathered for the annual Memorial Day ceremony.
Among the dignitaries who spoke was U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski, who pointed to circumstances of Williams’ death. She attended services for Williams, including graveside services at Rice Cemetery.
“To stand with and say goodbye right over here, it’s life-changing for me,” Walorski told the crowd.
Honoring the past
Mayor Dick Moore also addressed the audience and focused on the city’s rededication of the Main Street Memorial Bridge that took place last week and honors local veterans who died in World War I.
While the bridge has four plaques that list the names of 59 people from Elkhart County who died in the war, a new bronze plaque will be erected on the bridge in hopes that it becomes more widely known as the Memorial Bridge.
Moore pointed out that the bridge is the largest war memorial in Elkhart County.
The tradition of honoring veterans for their sacrifice continues, Moore said.
“As long as there is aggressive action that destroys human rights and civil liberties, our men and women, serving just like the veterans of all previous wars, will be there,” Moore said.
“Our own sons and daughters continue to serve in faraway places for the same cause as they did in World War I,” Moore said. “As long as they serve, we will owe more than we can ever give.”
Elkhart County Veterans Service officer Ron Lundy also spoke and noted that more than 15,000 veterans in Elkhart County are currently receiving support and assistance.
The $23 million in compensation and pensions sent to local veterans in the past year is more than any previous year, but Lundy added, “We still have a lot of work to do.”
Gordon Sherven, past commander and chaplain of Elkhart DAV Chapter 19, which organizes the annual ceremony, also focused on an obligation to do more for veterans.
He spoke of the impact last year’s government shutdown had on veterans services.
“Especially in recent years, we have seen how partisan bickering and political gridlock have threatened the ability of the Department of Veterans Affairs to meet the needs of our nation’s heroes,” Sherven said.
During the shutdown, the VA could not process new disability claims and many critical services were hampered, he said. He added that if the shutdown had continued a few more weeks, the impact on veterans would have grown.
“This must never happen again,” Sherven said.
“That’s why the DAV and other organizations are working together to get Congress to pass legislation to protect the rest of the VA’s budget through advanced funding,” he said.
His remarks were made with Walorksi sitting just four seats away along the front row of dignitaries. Walorski supported the government shutdown.
Asked afterward if he thinks Walorski heard his message, Sherven said, “I’m hoping so.”
A day for remembrance and appreciation
After prepared remarks, many at the ceremony attended a brief ceremony along the St. Joseph River for servicemen lost at sea.
Another ceremony was held at Elkhart City Hall where representatives of the Daughters of the American Revolution remembered five soldiers from Elkhart County who died in the American Revolutionary War.
Elkhart’s events were among many across Elkhart County.
In Goshen, the VFW held a service early Monday morning at the Rogers Park foot bridge. A second service was held shortly afterward at the War Memorial outside of the Elkhart Courthouse in Goshen.
The cities of Elkhart, Nappanee, Goshen and Middlebury hosted parades on Monday.
Back in Elkhart, the day was one for remembrances and appreciation.
But there was also another sense of appreciation for Passerallo.
“The support that this town has shown is just tremendous. I’m overwhelmed. I’ll never be able to pay that back,” she said.