At a poignant Memorial Day ceremony in San Jose Monday, former US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta paid tribute to American lives lost in battle, emphasizing the need to honor their sacrifices by continuing to stand up to “bullies” like Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Panetta, who grew up in Monterey and attended undergrad and law school at Santa Clara University, spoke to hundreds of veterans, families and community members during the annual ceremony at Oak Hill Memorial Park cemetery in San Jose. His speech his, which coincided with other similar events around the Bay Area, was part solemn gratitude for those who gave everything for their country, and part call to action.
“Memorial Day cannot just be a day of remembrance,” said Panetta, who served under former President Barack Obama. “It must also be a day for all of us to dedicate ourselves to the values that our brave veterans fought for. It is for the living, it’s for us, the living, to give their sacrifices meaning.”
As they listened intently to Panetta’s address, visitors at the ceremony sat among the graves of American veterans whose deaths spanned decades. Each burial site was adorned with an American flag placed there earlier in the weekend by 200 Boy and Girl Scouts. The event, attended by hundreds of people, also featured performances of “American the Beautiful” and “God Bless America,” a flyover by military helicopters, displays of tanks and other military vehicles, and a barbeque. Meanwhile, separate events took place at Chapel of the Chimes in Hayward, the San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio, and the USS Hornet in Alameda.
In San Jose, the main draw was Panetta’s keynote address, which Sen. Dave Cortese, D-San Jose, called “one of the greatest Memorial Day speeches by a Californian in the history of the state.”
Comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler, Panetta said the US and its NATO allies must remain tough and unified, and provide whatever military assistance the people of Ukraine need to thwart Russia’s invasion. The US has reinforced NATO with troops to send a message that if Putin goes into a NATO country, we will all go to war, he said. That’s because whatever happens in Ukraine will tell us a lot about the future of democracies in the 21st Century, he said.
“Yes, it’s dangerous,” Panetta said. “And yes, it could escalate. Those are the risks of war. But I also have to tell you that this is a pivotal moment.”
He also spoke about the 2011 raid that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and the suicide bomb — set off by a double-agent — that killed seven CIA officers the year before. He described greeting the grieving families of the officers who had been killed, and assuring them the military would not give up on the mission their loved ones had died for.
“What our veterans have shown us through their service and example is that a strong democracy is up to all of us,” he said. “Our duty is not just to fight for our country. But it’s also to fight to make sure that we have a country that is worth fighting for.”
Patricia Bamattre-Manoukian, who lost her son in Afghanistan, called Panetta’s speech inspiring. Her son Her, Marine Capt. Matthew Patrick Manoukian, died in 2012 in a surprise attack by an insurgent disguised as an Afghan policeman.
“His sacrifice will live on forever in the hearts of those who cherish freedom,” Patricia said, fighting tears.
Patricia and Socrates Peter Manoukian — a Santa Clara County Superior Court judge — presented a wreath honoring their son and all other recipients of the Medal of Honor.
“We’re honored to be included and a part of this,” the judge said.
For Antonio Palacios, a World War II veteran who will turn 95 next month, attending Monday’s memorial meant a lot. Palacios served in Japan in 1945 when he was still a teenager. On Monday, he sat in a wheelchair wearing a hat that proudly proclaimed his World War II service as a steady stream of fellow veterans and others shook his hand and thanked him. To one young man who approached, Palacios said he doesn’t regret a thing.
“If I was 18 like you, I’d still go back in,” he said.