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Bay Pines remembers fallen veterans on Memorial Day

ST. PETERSBURG

Sgt. Russell Pieper was in his fourth deployment in Afghanistan when it happened.

The Army Ranger was on a night mission, heading to a building his squad thought contained the enemy. They blew open the door. It was a nursery.

But the compound next door was also suspicious. The soldiers kicked down the door. Two men inside armed with AK-47s opened fire, and a woman hurled grenades.

That's when Pieper felt it: a round to each thigh.

"Millimeters would have changed my life," he said Monday, recounting the tale at the Bay Pines National Cemetery's Memorial Day remembrance.

When he was young, Memorial Day meant long car rides and beer drinking with buddies. Now at 27, he knows what the day stands for, what it means.

Now he knows about those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

• • •

What came to be Memorial Day started in 1865 in Charleston, S.C. A group of liberated slaves exhumed Union soldiers from a nearby mass grave and gave them proper burials. In 1868, they returned and decorated the graves. The modern Memorial Day became common after World War I.

"Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, our fallen may be dead in the human sense," former Marine Cpl. Frank Correa told the crowd of about 1,000 at Bay Pines, "but their spirit is immortal as long as the almighty sheds his grace on the great republic, the United States of America."

• • •

After almost two weeks of rain and clouds, the day's event was marked by a cool breeze, shade and blue skies. The director of the Bay Pines VA Healthcare System, Wallace Hopkins, saw this as a positive sign.

Behind him, gravestones marked the resting places of 28,369 American veterans.

"We're all so grateful for the sacrifices those behind us have made," he said.

Early morning events were on the mind of U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young as he spoke. North Korea ran a successful nuclear test that has sparked international concern, he said, so the need for talented men and women in the armed forces was still strong.

"War is not a pleasant thing," he said. "And we would pray for the day we would have no more war."

• • •

Pieper said after his "day of being wounded," he thought about those who had died before him. Like the three Rangers he knew who died in Afghanistan, trying to save a Navy SEAL.

Memorial Day was no longer just about having a good time with friends and family. It was about honoring America's heroes.

Pieper, who just graduated from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, is heading to medical school in the fall in part to help treat wounded veterans like himself.

"These are the people who paid the pathway so I can stand here today," he said, pointing toward the cemetery.

Andy Boyle can be reached at aboyle@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8087.

Bay Pines remembers fallen veterans on Memorial Day 05/25/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 26, 2009 12:09pm]
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