MINNEAPOLIS -- Veterans, families and the state's top political leaders gathered at Fort Snelling National Cemetery Monday to honor those Minnesotans who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of their nation.

The state's official Memorial Day ceremony drew thousands to the military graveyard where nearly 200,000 veterans and family members are buried.

"They were our friends, our neighbors, our fathers, our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters and, yes, even our mothers,"  Command Sgt. Major (Retired) Douglas Julin of the Minnesota National Guard told the crowd.

"Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, asked to make extraordinary sacrifices for their country. They all died for a cause greater than themselves."

On a holiday that began after the Civil War as Decoration Day the focus was on those who've died and those they left behind.

"We think about the 98 Minnesotans who lost their lives in the most recent wars, and many thousands before," Gov. Mark Dayton told KARE.  "We owe them all a debt of tremendous gratitude, and the families too who suffered."

And those who came to the ceremony weren't just thinking about those who were killed in action, but also those who died of suicide and other lingering, service-related illnesses.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar continues to push for a bill she co-authored with Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina, to get help for veterans who were exposed to toxins from burn pits in the Iraq war.

"Amie Muller, a young mom with three kids left her husband Brian, sadly died this year simply because she served," Klobuchar told KARE. "She was located next to a dangerous burn pit and she came home and got pancreatic cancer."

The Memorial Day Ceremony is a very public ceremony, but many of those who travel to Fort Snelling National Cemetery are there for very personal reasons, visiting the graves of friends and loved ones.

"My father's here, my brother-in-law's brother is here, a lot of my friends' dads and a couple of friends," Butch Fischer, a Vietnam War veteran who lives in Veseli Township in Rice County, explained.

He said he's awe struck by the site of so many headstones, of veterans and their spouses.

"It's just unbelievable. It's just an awesome place," Fischer explained. "Just hard to believe there are so many thousand veterans in one place like this."

Those who converged on the cemetery Monday were thinking of people they knew, or people they never had a chance to know; men and women whose lives were cut short so that others could be free.