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Casey Christie / The Californian

Deborah Boileau of Tehachapi visits the grave of her son, U.S. Army Sgt., Aaron Micheal Boileau, who died serving his country in 2012. He was in the 187th infantry and served in Afghanistan. She attended the Memorial Day Service at the Bakersfield National Cemetery along with approximately 800 people.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Patriot Guard riders stand with American flags at the back of the Memorial Day Service at the Bakersfield National Cemetery.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

During the invocation by Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, the crowd at the Bakersfield National Cemetery bows in prayer at the annual Memorial Day service.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, addresses the crowd during the annual Memorial Day service at Bakersfield National Cemetery.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Sunday's keynote speaker U.S. Army 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp speaks to about 800 people at the Bakersfield National Cemetery during the Memorial Day service.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Sen. Jean Fuller, left, gives the invocation Sunday at the Bakersfield National Cemetery during the Memorial Day service.

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Casey Christie / The Californian

Members of the Associated Veterans of Kern County performed a rifle salute during the annual Memorial Day service at the Bakersfield National Cemetery.

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Henry A. Barrios

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Jerry Lopez, foreground, and others attending the Memorial Day Service at the Historic Union Cemetery release balloons at the end of the service to honor military veterans who have died.

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Henry A. Barrios

Henry A. Barrios / The Californian Ruthe West places the memorial wreath during the Memorial Day Service at the Historic Union Cemetery Monday.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Danielle Parker, right, and Talisha Jones walk through gravesites at the Historic Union Cemetery on Memorial Day as they visit burial sites of family members who served in the military. They say they have come to honor family members who served in the military during World War 1, World War II, the Vietnam War, and in Iraq.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Ron Holguin, left, got a call from his uncle Monty Holguin, right, early Monday to remind him of the Memorial Day Service at the Historic Union Cemetery. Elaine Suarez joined them at the service to honor her and Ron's father and Monty's brother. Monty is a veteran.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

"We want to teach him early" Judy Wonderly says as she holds her 1 1/2 year-old grandson, Gavin, at the Memorial Day Service held Monday morning at the Historic Union Cemetery. Balloons were released at the end of the service.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

A 21-gun salute is fired to honor veterans on Memorial Day at the Historic Union Cemetery Monday morning.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Veteran Danny Gonzales walks through the gravesites at the Historic Union Cemetery on Memorial Day searching for his friend, John Granados' gravesite. Both men served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Brandon Risner attends the Memorial Day Service at the Historic Union Cemetery with his wife, Amanda, and sons, Baron, 5 and Caedan 1, Monday morning.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Rep. Kevin McCarthy addresses people attending the Memorial Day Service at the Historic Union Cemetery in this file photo.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Many people attended the Memorial Day Service held at the Historic Union Cemetery Monday to honor military veterans.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Ralph and Rosemary Ramirez visit the gravesite of a family member on Memorial Day at the Historic Union Cemetery. Ralph is an Army veteran.

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Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

Talisha Jones quietly walks through the Historic Union Cemetery on Memorial Day visiting gravesites of family members who served in the military. She and her cousin, Danielle Parker, not pictured, came to honor family members who served in the military during World War I, World War II, the Vietnam War, and in Iraq.

They drove up the hill by the hundreds, some wearing suits and ties, others wearing T-shirts emblazoned with words like "Never, ever, forget."

An estimated 800 people came to this spot in the oak-dotted hills east of Bakersfield: politicians, soldiers old and young, bikers and bankers, teachers and truckers -- Americans all.

They came on this day, the Sunday before Memorial Day, to remember, to honor, to mourn and to thank those who have served in uniform, especially those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion." The language at the event was elevated, the mood somber, the direction hopeful at Bakersfield National Cemetery.

"The love of country is more than just a catch-phrase in our culture," state Sen. Jean Fuller said in her invocation. And the crowd seemed to prove her words true with their very presence.

Some spoke about the unique beauty of the cemetery's location, others of the need for Americans to honor, for as long as the flag flies, those who have protected what it stands for.

But when 25-year-old 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp began speaking, he seemed, as one listener said, almost Kennedy-like in his tone and cadence and quiet confidence.

And the crowd listened as his words were carried by the wind.

"This is hallowed ground, made sacred not by church or state but by the bones of the men and women here interred," he said.

Van Kopp knows of such things. He has lost valued comrades in battle, and nearly lost his own life last year. It was late September and Van Kopp was leading his platoon in eastern Afghanistan when the unit came under heavy attack. The Bakersfield High School and West Point graduate suffered a serious head injury.

On Sunday, he spoke of a village in eastern Afghanistan where a modest school for girls must be guarded daily against men who would launch rocket-propelled grenades over its walls or throw acid in the faces of young girls who would dare challenge what Van Kopp called the Taliban's "ancient tyrannies."

"May we always be on the side that builds roads and guards schools," he told the crowd. "May it always be said that is the American way of war."

He honored what some have dubbed the Greatest Generation, not for its victories, but for its values.

"They're not the greatest generation because they destroyed armies," he said, "but because they built nations."

And he cautioned against honoring the sacrifice of so many Americans lost "in field and forest" without first understanding that it is up to us, the living, to bring continued meaning to the sacrifices we honor.

"And so the onus is on us, we the living," Van Kopp said. "For in sacrifice it is the triumphs of our lives that make their deaths precious."

As people slowly drove back toward the cemetery gate, some stopped at a spot where scores of bleached white stones stood in perfect rows like soldiers at attention. Small American flags decorated each grave, and people -- mothers and fathers, sons and daughters -- lingered as if being near the remains of their loved ones brought them a small comfort or a moment of peace.

It is in places like this that children begin to grasp the meaning of service and sacrifice. But mothers know the meaning all too well.

At one grave, a gray-haired woman bent over and kissed the top of a stone.

Engraved on the stone was the name Aaron Micheal Boileau, an Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan with the 182nd Infantry.

"I lost Aaron last year. He was 25," said his still-grieving mother, Deborah Boileau.

Aaron wasn't lost in battle, and his mother remained vague about exactly how he died. But she said he came home a changed man, and she considers him a casualty of war.

This weekend, she said, is about remembering what she had and what she lost.

"I'm surprised," she said, "that God blessed me with such a wonderful son."