Memorial Day ceremonies were held this holiday weekend — both in person and virtually — in East Hawaii.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic curtailed gatherings to commemorate the federal holiday established to honor American service members who died in the nation’s wars and military conflicts.
This year, reduced COVID-19 infection totals and the vaccination of more than half of the state’s residents made it possible for Hilo’s Memorial Day ceremony to once again be held in person with perhaps 100, including participants, in attendance.
The event itself was a departure from those in years past. The biggest change was the move from Hawaii Veterans Cemetery No. 1 to Hawaii Veterans Cemetery No. 2.
Jeno Enocencio, commander of American Legion Post 3 Hilo, a Vietnam War combat veteran and the main organizer and emcee of Monday’s ceremony, recognized he couldn’t do it alone.
“The good Lord has his hand in this because he sent me messengers. He sent me a lot of good folks that was able to come in and say, ‘Hey, Jeno, what do you need?’” Enocencio said.
Many of the staples of Memorial Day remained — floral tributes, color guard and honor guard, guest speakers and the playing of “Taps.”
One difference was the reciting of about 160 names of Big Island-connected veterans who have died since Jan. 20, 2020 through May 2021. They were honored by 21-gun salutes and the tolling of a large bell borrowed from Hilo Surplus Store.
The bells were an acknowledgement and, yes, a celebration of the contributions of the deceased.
“This should be a day of celebration,” said Charley Mapa, American Legion Post 3 chaplain. “We should celebrate our women and men who have laid down their lives for our country. We celebrate them — our grandparents, our aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, classmates, our neighbors. We celebrate the freedoms they won for us. We celebrate their dreams in us.”
In the midst of the celebration was the mourning for lives cut short, dreams unrealized, and friends and families who carry the grief of loss with them daily.
“We have a heavy heart today,” said John J. Kaiwi, guest speaker, lead pastor of Oasis Christian Church in Hilo, and a veteran of the U.S. Navy and Hawaii Army National Guard. “When I’m around civilians that say ‘happy Memorial Day,’ I kind of look at them and I say to myself, ‘Well, they don’t know.’ But I don’t want to have a confrontation with them, nor do I have the time to let them know we’re in mourning.
“It’s not about how you start in life, it’s about how you finish. Be comforted with the promise that you will see them again — and I’m counting on it. … Just to have five minutes with my World War II grandfather now, I probably would give a lot just to sit down one more time … and talk to him.”
“One of the worst forms of pain is the heartache of losing a loved one,” added Theresa Kaiwi, who co-founded Oasis Christian Church with her husband. “When we hear a family, a military family whose loved one has died, let us have compassion and extend our love and support to them. Not only has a service member given their life for our country, but their family has paid the price, as well.”
The 2021 Puna District Interfaith Memorial Observance was posted Saturday on YouTube by the Puna Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, with its keynote speaker, Col. Debra Lewis, U.S. Army (retired), commander of Veteran of Foreign Wars Post 3830. Lewis, an Irag War veteran who was commander of the Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region, delivered her address with a backdrop of a memorial on the temple grounds honoring service members from Puna who gave their lives during World War II and the Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
“With Memorial Day, we’re looking to honor those who cannot be with us today because of our sacrifices. But we want to say thank you. Thank you for keeping us free; thank you for allowing us to assemble and do the things and live the life that we love right now,” said Lewis.
Brig. Gen. Raymond Gandy (retired) — an Army Ranger, Vietnam War veteran, and one of two buglers, with Paul Arceo, playing “Taps” at the Hilo ceremony — was the keynote speaker for a commemoration organized by Kilauea Military Camp in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and posted to Facebook.
“You don’t wish somebody ‘happy Memorial Day’ like ‘happy birthday’ or ‘happy Mother’s Day,” said Gandy. “Memorial Day is not about backyard barbecues or an extra day at the beach. Memorial Day is about remembering and honoring those who gave their last full measure of devotion for this country that we love. A nation reveals itself not just in the people it produces, but in those it remembers.
“For 155 years since the end of the Civil War, our nation has set aside this day to pay solemn tribute to those patriots. … Americans have lost their lives in some 83 wars and military actions over the last 246 years. While the nature of war has changed over that time, the values which drive our brave young men and women remain constant — honor, courage, selfless sacrifice.”
Email John Burnett at email@example.com.