By John Croman

FORT SNELLING, Minn. — Minnesotans gathered at Fort Snelling National Cemetery and other spots across the state Monday to pay tribute to those who fell in combat or died later as a result of their war experiences.

The sounds of taps, rifle volleys and vintage aircraft flying over hallowed ground were all part of a larger effort to remember and honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

The state's stop politicians acknowledged that most people spent the extended holiday weekend enjoying the spectacular spring weather, but pointed out those who served their nation are the ones who protected Americans' freedom to decide who to spend their free time.

Gov. Tim Walz, an Army National Guard veteran, pointed to the ocean of grave markers that surrounded the audience, to say that hallowed ground evokes feelings of unity.

"Those that are around us – theirs is the purest democracy," Walz said.

"They didn't ask each other what their politics were. They simply served. They did what was asked of them and they gave us a chance to live the life we want."

Walz and Sen. Amy Klobuchar pointed out strides that have been made at the state and federal level to take better care of those who served and are still struggling with the legacy of war.

On the state level there are three new veterans' homes being built, and more service bonuses amid a recognition that veterans' issues shouldn't be mixed in with other legislation.

On the federal level, Klobuchar has secured legislation that makes it presumption that dozens of different diseases veterans suffer from were caused by hazards they were exposed to, such as burn pits.

"You are part of this proud tradition in this state of men and women who have served with honor, bravery, dignity and humility," Klobuchar, whose father Jim is buried at Fort Snelling, remarked.

"We get to live in that future right now because of their sacrifice. It is a responsibility we must all take seriously to remember the defenders."

Marcus Syverson, the assistant director of Fort Snelling National Cemetery, said there are 253,000 veterans and family members in 186,000 grave sites on the grounds. He said for the staff, volunteers and other others who oversee those graves every day is Memorial Day.

He made a special appeal to the audience to reach out to Vietnam Veterans, as we've now reached the 50th anniversary of the final US combat forces leaving that nation in 1973.

"The Veterans Administration estimates there are more than six million Vietnam veterans alive today," Syverson explained.

"I ask you to take a moment today to thank a Vietnam veteran for serving so bravely and so selflessly. It’s never too late to say thank you."

One of those veterans, retired US Navy Lt. Commander Mike Peterson, gave the keynote address. He recalled a night in August of 1968 when he piloted a Seawolf helicopter into a hot zone to rescue a group of Navy SEALs who had become stranded and pinned down by Vietcong forces.

He said they had to dump most of their armament and fire their rockets into the Mekong River just to make the attack chopper light enough to evacuate the seals. One of those SEALs, his friend Eugene Tinnin, died of his injuries in the firefight.

"God bless all the men and women today, serving on active duty, standing in the gap to protect you and me," Peterson declared.

"And God bless all the military heroes who have paid the ultimate price preserving freedom -- freedom known by no other nation in history!"