Ravell Call, Deseret News
BLUFFDALE — When Casey Kunimara joined the armed forces during World War II, his parents were still housed in an internment camp.
He had recently been released from the camp himself and joined other Nisei — second-generation American-born citizens — in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team in the United States Army. Only a few years before, he and other Japanese-Americans had been classified as unfit for military service.
They were determined to show their new country that they were not only American, but willing to risk their lives for the freedom of their fellow citizens.
"I think it made me a better citizen. More proud of this country. You can change the minds of a people by your actions," Kunimara, who served in the 442nd for 18 months, said.
His battalion was honored Monday, along with the 100th Infantry Battalion and Nisei Military Intelligence Service, with a commemorative plaque in honor of these Congressional Gold Medal veterans. They had collectively been awarded this honor in 2011.
"Who'd think I'd be able to stand?" Kunimura asked, when members of the 442 were asked to stand near the plaque unveiled in their honor on Memorial Day.
Wearing a red and blue Garrison Cap with the words "Go for Broke" embroidered in white, Kunimara and a dozen other veterans stood next to the plaque that was covered by a white cloth.
After pulling the cloth off, he stood with his hand on another veteran's shoulder as they read the names engraved upon the Congressional Gold Medal plaque.
"I hope that those who see this plaque here will remember that these were just a bunch of young kids when we served and it was through them that we came to where we are today."
A chapel ceremony at 10 a.m. paved the way for the unveiling. The courtyard outside the chapel at Camp Williams was full as the crowd waited for the chapel ceremony to conclude.
Inside the chapel, Lexi Walker, 11, sang "America the Beautiful," followed by speakers that included congressman Jim Matheson, who expressed gratitude for those who have and are currently serving in the military, and for their families.
"May we all remember that for every monument we see, for every flag on a grave, there is a story to tell, a human face to a life once vibrant," Matheson said. "These soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines are our families, are our neighbor, our classmates our friends and our colleagues and when the nation needed them they answered the call."
This is the most decorated regiment in United States Army history, Matheson said, and is often referred to as the Purple Heart Battalion. The 442nd were awarded 9,486 purple hearts, 4,000 bronze stars, 19 medals of honor, 52 distinguished services crosses, and one distinguished service medal, among other honors, Matheson said.
After the unveiling of the plaque, families of veterans were invited to stand near a floral wreath in honor of veterans. The words, "Thank you veterans" were written in gold cursive letters on a blue ribbon on the wreath. Shortly after, twenty-one volleys sounded during a cannon salute.
As the dust cleared a trumpet player sounding "Taps" on a hill came into view. When he finished, two bagpipers chimed in with "Amazing Grace."
The chapel ceremony, plaque unveiling and wreath presentation made up the first of three events held at Camp Williams on Memorial Day. The others included a ribbon-cutting ceremony for cemetery improvements and the dedication of a special forces monument.
Several hundred yards away, dozens of Patriot Guard Riders formed a semicircle around the entrance to the new columbarium at Memorial Park, holding 32 American flags, and one flag for each branch of the military.
The Cemetery Expansion Project Ribbon Cutting Ceremony marked the second event of the Memorial Day celebration at the Utah Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park.
Terry Schow, Utah Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director, and other veteran community leaders joined together for the cutting of the blue and white ribbon dedicating the investment of about $4.2 million toward cemetery improvements. The improvements were funded by The National Cemetery Administration’s Veterans Cemetery Grants Program.
Renovations included the construction of nearly 3,000 grave sites, a new maintenance facility, turf renovation and headstone cleaning and realignment, said George Eisenbach, the Veterans Affairs Cemetery Grants Program Acting Director.
“Veteran cemeteries are playing an increasingly important role in the way we honor those that serve the nation, as well as those that made the ultimate sacrifice,” Eisenbach said.
Burials in Veteran Affairs funded cemeteries more than doubled between 2000 and 2012, he said, growing from 14,000 to about 31,000 per year.
“Many of those deserving veterans and family members would not have been served if (these) cemeteries didn’t exist,” Eisenbach said.
The renovations beautified the cemetery into a “world class facility” for the families of veterans to appreciate, Schol said.
“I’ve had a number of families come up to me and tell me how beautiful it looks,” Schow said. “At the end of the day, if we have pleased those families, then that’s what this is all about because this place contains their loved ones.”
Schow said families of veterans can save themselves thousands of dollars of burial costs at the newly renovated cemetery, as veterans can be buried free of charge.
Just prior to the ribbon cutting ceremony, Eisenbach addressed those gathered around to witness the dedication of the cemetery’s renovations.
“What I’ve seen here is amazing. The folks out here are enthusiastic and the grounds are beautiful—really, really beautiful. Nothing would have kept me from coming.”
Around noon, a monument was dedicated to the special forces.
Color guard set the American and Utah flags in posts next to the Green Beret flag. The crowd stood, some with hands over their hearts, during the pledge of allegiance, and as the National Anthem and Ballad of the Green Beret played. Five commemorative planes flew overhead.
Two-dozen Green Beret veterans stood by the sheathed monument. Six of them worked to unveil the monument, dedicated to the 70th chapter of the Green Beret.
Gordon L Ewell, who attended the day's events, was a a veteran of the Army National Guard. He served for 24 years, including a one-year tour of duty in Iraq, where he was injured in several explosions and retired from service.
With a glass eye, hearing aids and two canes — one with a leather fringe handle and dozens of pins attached and a second, white-tipped cane — were visible reminders of his sacrifices in the military.
As he waited for the Green Beret ceremony, he said he felt gratitude for those who "paid the ultimate price for my freedom."
"It's a debt of gratitude you can't pay back but you do your best to pay forward," he said.
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