Memorial Day close to home this year

The tone of celebrations around the US this weekend had a somber note as a divided nation honored its veterans and troops in Iraq.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., soldiers returning from Iraq were showered with confetti blasted from rented canons this weekend.

In Lansing, Mich., the Memorial Day parade was dedicated to the memory of Pfc. Richard Rosas, a town hero who had returned from war in March with a Purple Heart - and was killed in Fallujah last week.

In Hartford, Conn., Saturday, volunteers at the state armory assembled 1,500 care packages for troops in Iraq, tucking lip balm, sunscreen, and snacks into care packages along with schoolchildren's letters and cartoons.

The long weekend had its share of barbecues and beach trips, but a rising death toll in Iraq and the uncertainties of a global war on terror punctuated the holiday with a more somber note. From Denver to D.C., Americans turned out in greater numbers to honor Americans who have died in combat, past and present. Even as a new World War II Memorial opened, the nation's newer scars were marked in public tributes and quiet remembrance.

A year ago, Memorial Day came on the tail of celebration: The US seemed victorious in Iraq; Saddam Hussein's statue had fallen; and many thought the worst of the conflict - and casualty count - was over. But Monday's services found a nation torn, with support for the war in Iraq eroding and new, more urgent warnings of terrorist attacks on the nightly news. Around the country, the intensity of feeling along parade routes and in the doleful notes of trumpets playing taps caught many all along the political spectrum by surprise.

• In Colorado Springs, Colo., home to 15,000 troops, 50 buses brought soldiers downtown. World War II planes and modern fighter jets zoomed overhead. Up the interstate in Denver, the annual parade drew its largest crowd in a decade.

• In Lansing, Mich., mourners of Private Rosas recently gathered at his mother's home, bearing candles and prayers as they lined the front yard in her working-class neighborhood and poked American flags into the grass. Apolonia Rosas sat in a patio chair beside an old oak tree, sobbing for her son.

• At 3 p.m. across America, train whistles blasted and baseball games paused in a national moment of remembrance.

More than 800 US troops have died in Iraq since the bombing of Baghdad in March of 2003, and most of them were killed after President Bush declared an end to major combat operations last May.

In a year-plus of fallen statues, fallen troops, fluctuating hope, and, most recently, gruesome images of prisoner abuse, support for the war has spiked, spiraled, and, increasingly, sunk. A Gallup poll this month showed 52 percent of those surveyed believed it was "not worth going to war" in Iraq - up from 42 percent last fall. In a CBS poll, 49 percent still say the US "did the right thing" by invading Iraq, but that's down from 63 percent last December. Now 46 percent believe the US should have stayed out of the conflict. In a Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll taken earlier this month, 55 percent of those surveyed supported US military action in Iraq, and 48 percent said the effort has helped make the world a safer place.

But if the spring has been bloodier than expected, and if the sight of flag-draped caskets has made made many rethink the war, US military recruiters are unfazed: Nearly 185,000 men and women signed up for service over the past fiscal year, reflecting a renewed patriotism among many.

And if a polarized nation was torn this weekend, with more troops lost than at any time since Vietnam, support for the soldiers in Iraq was effusive. Charlestown, R.I., for instance, had no trouble attracting locals to a parade more than a mile long. In Westport Conn., a flag that was flown over Baghdad in the war and then carried by the fire department honor guard drew gasps and silence from the crowd.

The nation's two main political antagonists joined in the honoring, too. Mr. Bush praised the "fierce courage" of US service members in Iraq and Afghanistan Monday while laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, while John Kerry paid a solemn visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

For some, the weekend's rush of mourning and the fresh sympathy of a nation at war were a tragic relief. There were more ceremonies this year, more reminders of gratitude and grief.

Stacy Menusa's 4-year-old son, Joshua, takes comfort in American flags draped on porches and along highways: He thinks every one of them waves for his father, Marine Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Menusa, who was killed on March 27, 2003 - the same day his battalion arrived in Iraq.

"I'll be driving down the road," says Joshua's mother, Stacy, "and he'll be freaking out: 'Look, a flag for Daddy!' "

Organizations for war families also took solace in this weekend's wider, or more widely acknowledged, mourning. After 10 years of relative obscurity, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), founded by military widows, saw 400 faces at its Arlington, Va., conference. The Memorial Day meetings had never drawn more than 100 to candlelight vigils and walks through Arlington National Cemetery. Delain Johnson, who learned on Christmas Eve that her son, Army Capt. Christopher Seolzer, had been killed in a roadside bombing in Iraq, came to the meeting on funds raised by her hometown. To Ms. Johnson, the TAPS gathering gave "permission to honor my son and to know I will live again."

That sense of community is stronger than in many decades past. With World War II veterans dying at a rate of nearly 1,100 a day - only 4 million of the 16 million who fought are still alive - the urge to commemorate took on special meaning to many older veterans. When the 7.4 acre, $174 million Washington memorial was dedicated Saturday, many vets saw it as a last chance to wear their full-dress whites.

"I'm so glad it's getting done now because I have so many World War II friends who are dying every day," says Ted Fleser, who fought in the invasion of Sicily. "I'm extremely excited the memorial is finally being opened."

Back in Washington, Guy Kemp, the Navy Seabee who was dancing on the National Mall, had come to see the bronze and granite - and the thousands who'd served as he had. "This really gets me way down deep," he says. "It's best thing I've done in my life."

Material from the Associated Press and Daniel B. Wood was used in this report.

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