Valor. Duty. Honor.

Service. Courage. Sacrifice.

Those words were invoked in proud pronouncements and breaking voices as the Bay Area, in gratitude and in mourning, paid a Memorial Day tribute to the men and women who died and served in U.S. wars.

"I have never met a veteran who called himself a hero," said Phil Keller, master of ceremonies at the annual service at Oak Hill Memorial Park in San Jose. Instead, the veterans say, "I was just doing my job."

At the service attended by 350 people, a succession of 14 veteran representatives laid red-and-white carnation wreaths in the veterans' section of the cemetery. Earlier, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts had planted small American flags next to the headstone of each veteran. The yellow and red-striped flag of the former Republic of Vietnam, known to Americans then as South Vietnam, also honored the graves of those who died in the Vietnam War.

At San Bruno's Golden Gate National Cemetery, as more than 600 people waited for a Memorial Day remembrance to begin, Walter Lazar knelt before a grave and placed a bouquet of red roses.

Lazar's brother, George Lazar, was a Marine who had been weeks shy of his 21st birthday when he stepped on a booby trap on June 12, 1966, in Vietnam. He died a day later. Walter Lazar, 63, of San Francisco, said the ache of his brother's death is still potent.

"It's a hole that never goes away. We were two peas in a pod," said Lazar, standing among the rows of identical white headstones. "It occurs to me, how many doctors, how many engineers, how many people have we lost?"


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Walter Lazar, also a Marine, had been five days short of graduating from basic training when he got the news. Because his brother's death had made him an only son, military policy kept him from going into combat.

Silent tribute

At San Bruno, as elsewhere, civilians, uniformed military personnel and veterans -- some wearing medals and seated in wheelchairs -- paid silent tribute as leaders and politicians spoke.

Aboard the USS Hornet in Alameda, Cmdr. James Ridgeway, commanding officer of the Navy Operational Support Center in Alameda, reminded families that the war in Afghanistan has claimed nearly 2,000 troops and wounded 15,950. The number, he said, is "staggering."

No matter what people think about the government's decision of where and when to use troops, Ridgeway said, honoring their sacrifice is "crucial."

At the Pleasanton Senior Community Center, about 300 people gathered to honor servicemen and women. Army Command Sgt. Maj. Patrick McKie, who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, talked about a mural he saw on a wall in Bagram, Afghanistan. Depicting a soldier on a hilltop with a rifle at the ready, the painting was accompanied by the words, "Remember our fallen comrades. Live a life worthy of their sacrifice."

"It reminds me that those who gave the ultimate sacrifice deserve that commitment from me and from all of us," McKie said.

For some, the pain of losing a loved one to war was fresh. For others, a long-ago sacrifice drew them to the ceremonies. John Stolp of San Jose, a member of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, was honoring his great-great-grandfather, who died in 1866. "He helped keep the country together and strong," Stolp said at Oak Hill.

Sacrifice 'has to stop'

Others, while honoring the sacrifice, questioned the purpose. David Ledesma's older brother, Joseph Ledesma Jr., died at age 20 in Vietnam. David and his mother, Frances Ledesma -- with a brother who was tortured in Korea as a prisoner of war and a cousin who went missing in action -- waved a blue peace-sign flag at Oak Hill. Sending young men into military conflict, she said, "has to stop."

At the SS Red Oak Victory, a restored cargo ship in the Richmond harbor, William Jackson recalled the day his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic during World War II.

"To me, Memorial Day is a very sacred day," said Jackson, 93, his voice momentarily weighed down with the gravity of memories as he looked through old photographs of his service in the Merchant Marine.

"I can see bodies floating in the North Atlantic," Jackson said. He survived another attack and spent two months recovering from trauma. "Most veterans don't like to talk about what happened."

The details of death and fear are too difficult, he added -- a reminder of the sacrifice war demands even of the survivors.

"Memorial Day," he said, "should never be forgotten."

Contact Sharon Noguchi at snoguchi@mercurynews.com or 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.