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Forgotten Heroes ceremony honors 29 veterans at Santa Fe National Cemetery
The Santa Fe New Mexican - 9/30/2022
Sep. 30—Anita Blackston and her family gathered at the Santa Fe National Cemetery on Thursday to honor her friend, U.S. Marine Cpl. Richard Shirk. The pair had met online and chatted for about seven months before Shirk moved to New Mexico to stay with her.
"I told him if he came I would take care of him," Blackston said. "We were real close. ... He was a very good man."
Shirk died in September 2020 while staying at Blackston's apartment. A little over two years later, she and her family got the chance to honor their friend at the Forgotten Heroes Memorial Ceremony.
Of the 29 servicemen and women honored, Shirk is the only one who had family or friends come to send him off.
"They put in their time; they deserve to be honored," attendee Muriel Utsey said. "They deserve somebody to say goodbye."
Utsey, who served as an aviation maintenance administrationman in the U.S. Navy in 1969, said she and her daughter Carolyn drove from Albuquerque to Thursday's ceremony to celebrate the lives of those being put to rest.
She added, her two parents, and her late husband Arthur Utsey are buried in the cemetery. In addition to visiting their family, both Muriel and Carolyn Utsey served as family for those who had no one there to honor them.
"They need love, too," Carolyn Utsey said.
About 100 people gathered in the crisp September air to pay respects to the 26 men and three women nearing their final resting place. A swath of motorcyclists with Santa Fe's American Legion Riders zoomed past attendees before lining the back of the ceremony with a host of American flags.
Following a call to order from cemetery Director Victor Vasquez, Thursday's ceremony started in earnest with Marisol Herrera's rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The stars and stripes swelled behind Herrera while the wind — as if on cue — bellowed and accompanied her tribute to the men and women being honored.
Herrera, who has performed at the Forgotten Heroes Memorial Ceremony about five times, said she continues to perform at the function to help remember those who have been forgotten.
"I feel a lot of gratitude right now. For me, I always think of freedom as not being free. ... These people fought for us for a reason," Herrera said. "That's why I'm here today, so I can help with remembering them."
The autumn breeze persisted in spurts, sometimes at inopportune moments. As Sonya Smith, who heads the state's Department of Veterans' Services, began her eulogy, her prepared speech went flying off the podium.
"You know what, I don't need it," Smith said as aides collected the unruly, yellow sheets of paper. "I know what to say."
Smith, a veteran herself who served in the military during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-91, thanked everyone in attendance for dedicating their time to recognizing the sacrifices made by the 29 people being laid to rest and the freedoms each of them fought for. She added, her department has helped organize the Forgotten Heroes Memorial Ceremony in conjunction with Bernalillo County for about 12 years.
While looking into the crowd, Smith caught sight of Blackston, and thanked her for coming to honor the forgotten heroes. She then asked the crowd if anyone else was there to honor a loved one.
No one spoke up.
"That's OK, because we are all here for them," Smith said. "Today we are all family."
Each of the 29 mahogany urns was brought up one at a time by a service member. Adorned with miniature American flags and listing each service member's name, all were joined together to the sound of bagpipes.
All of them were honored individually as Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar read out each of the 29 names. Their sendoff was brought to a close by members of the Kirtland Air Force Base Honor Guard, which rendered full military honors by firing a three-volley salute and performing taps.
Blackston's daughter, Connie, stood to the side as each of the urns was carried back toward a hearse, phone in hand, hoping to get a picture of Shirk for her mother.
Eventually, she walked back to Blackston's wheelchair and pointed out which urn was that of her dear friend.
Blackston, whose late husband Nathaniel also is buried in the cemetery, said she was impressed by the ceremony. She added, her daughter wants to attend the Forgotten Heroes Memorial Ceremony "every time they do it."
"Everything was beautiful," Blackston said. "That was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
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