The Liberty Park Pavilion was awash in red, white and blue as community members gathered May 27 for the traditional Memorial Day program. There were lots of families and past servicemembers wearing caps, hats and other parts of their military attire.

Over 300 were welcomed by Batesville Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3183 Commander Del Williamson, who organized the event. That's not counting participants, who also included Prell-Bland American Legion Post 271 members; ladies auxiliaries members; Sons of the American Legion; Knights of Columbus; U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps Flying Tigers Squadron, which is sponsored by the American Legion post; and Batesville Singers, the Batesville High School show choir.

The ceremony began with a few Flying Tigers Squadron members posting the colors and the BHS students, led by Rachel Quillian, singing the national anthem. It was the first of three stirring songs the audience enjoyed during the 45-minute program.

Father Stan Pondo of St. Louis Catholic Church, Batesville, then said a prayer, asking the listeners "to remember and give thanks to those who have served our country."

Mayor Mike Bettice recalled, "More than 1.1 million men and women have died in wartime throughout the span of our nation's history. To put that into perspective, that's more than the populations of San Francisco, Boston, Seattle or even Washington, D.C. In fact, more people were killed in World War II than currently live in the city of New Orleans.

"This does not even begin to consider those who were wounded or went missing. That number is closer to 2.8 million, just slightly more than the city of Chicago. These numbers are truly humbling as they represent individuals who were brothers, husbands, mothers, sisters, friends. These were people woven into the fabric of communities across the nation."

He pointed out, "There are many ways we can keep our current service people, veterans and fallen heroes in the forefront of our minds. It could be driving a veteran to a medical appointment, befriending one who lives alone or in a nursing facility or reaching out to the veteran who just left military service. Please, reach out to find ways you can help engage and be part of the effort to care for those who served. Working together ... we can ensure that the sacrifices made by our nation's finest and bravest never go unappreciated and that their memories are never forgotten."

Williamson explained that VFW and auxiliary members oversee four annual programs. Batesville High School junior Erin Batta, who won the Voice of Democracy taped essay contest at the post and district levels, discussed "Why my Vote Matters."

"It is no secret that today's political climate is filled with controversy, debates and endless disputes over issues of all sorts. Because of this, one might think that almost everyone would eagerly accept the amazing opportunity of voting. However, in 2016, a shockingly low 55.5 percent of eligible Americans actually voted in the presidential election. This is a problem that can only be changed if Americans start viewing voting as one of the most important ways to preserve freedom. My vote matters because it is a way to influence real issues that affect myself and others every day. ...

"People should be encouraged to educate themselves on any political concept so that they can further their knowledge and more accurately align their votes with their personal beliefs. America is one of the first and only nations to ever offer such a powerful way for people to play a role in their government, and this is a right that everyone should take advantage of. The ability to have a say in who makes the most important decisions in an entire country is one that should never be taken for granted. ...

"The government's truest and most basic function is to ensure that people's unalienable rights are protected, and the only way this can happen is if citizens educate themselves on important issues and vote accordingly.

"While hard times will inevitably continue to come, the one thing Americans must not do is give up on freedom. Our votes will determine what decisions are made, show respect to our founding fathers' wishes, and make lasting impacts on our country. We must continue to fight for what is important: protecting inalienable rights, seeking freedom from tyranny and corruption and promoting a future for America where everyone's vote matters."

The commander filled the audience in on two Memorial Day historical events. He reported Civil War Gen. John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic (a Union veterans organization that was a precursor to the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion) declared on May 5, 1868, that May 30 be designated for strewing flowers around and decorating graves of "comrades who died for the country in the recent rebellion" along with fitting services and testimonials.

Williamson pointed out, "That was the beginning of Decoration Day, what eventually became Memorial Day. The South initially refused to honor the day," but after World War I the holiday encompassed Americans who died fighting in every war, not just the Civil War.

"The second moment concerns this little silk poppy," he said, holding a small red flower aloft. It is a remembrance of World War I in Flanders, Belgium, where Germans launched massive attacks using poison gas in 1915. Over 87,000 Allied soldiers and 37,000 German soldiers were killed, wounded or went missing. The gas obliterated the landscape, killing all plant life, too. But soon red poppies started to grow up in between makeshift graves and were immortalized in the poem "In Flanders Field," written by John McCrae after his friend died there.

Disabled veterans began making paper poppies, in remembrance of friends who never returned from the war, and before Memorial Day in 1922 the VFW conducted a nationwide distribution.

Williamson asked, "Why do we celebrate Memorial Day?" He maintained the holiday is for educating the young about inspiring events and a reminder "the freedoms we enjoy in this country have come at a great cost."

He mused, "How do we honor these individuals" who died protecting us? "I challenge you to wear a poppy today." When people ask why, "Tell them you're wearing it to honor a buddy – 'a buddy I once had or never met, but wish I had.'"

After a patriotic rendition of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by the Batesville Singers, accompanied on piano by Vonni Williamson, the commander's wife, the firing squad completed three volleys of fire followed by "Taps."

Then the solemn crowd left, walking past a series of American flags placed around the park by the Indiana Patriot Guard Southeast Region Riders.

Debbie Blank can be contacted at debbie.blank@batesvilleheraldtribune.com or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.