Memorial Day events honor veterans, fallen heroes

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Retired Army Sgt. Jason Smith lost both legs in 2012 when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. (WLS)

Memorial Day was marked on Monday throughout the Chicago area with events such as a wreath-laying ceremony in Grant Park in Chicago.

The events sought to remember and honor fallen service men and women and thank those who returned from combat.

Parades were held in several communities, including Arlington Heights, Glenview, Naperville, Wilmette, Plainfield and Aurora.


The parade in Arlington Heights is one of the area's biggest, stretching a mile long. This was the parade's 97th year and drew hundreds of attendees and thousands of floats.

Veterans who attended said Memorial Day is more than just BBQs and enjoying a day off.

"It's a day that we honor the soldiers," said retired Army Sgt. Jason Smith. "It's one day a year (for) the fallen men and women and, to me, it's important that people understand that."

Smith lost both legs in 2012 when he stepped on an IED in Afghanistan. He remembers it vividly.

"It tells me how close I was to actually being honored on this day," he said. "I mean, I almost didn't make it"

WWII veteran Irving Abramson, of Skokie, said he's also lucky to be alive.

During the Battle of the Bulge, he came too close to a German artillery shell and was seriously hurt.

"The shell broke both bones in my lower leg broke my knee broke three ribs punctured my lung and I had burns up and down one side of my body from hot shrapnel," Abramson said. "How I ever survived, I don't know."

Abramson was honored by U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Illinois, with the Bronze Medal, the Purple Heart, and six other medals and awards he earned during his service. He served in the 100th Infantry Division in the European Theatre of Operations during World War II and was stationed in both France and Germany.

But he just said that he was doing his job: "We were doing a job and we never considered ourselves heroes nor do I," he said.


At Oak Hill Cemetery on the Southwest Side, a special tribute was held for the first black military pilots in the U.S.

Taps played as a wreath was placed at the Veterans Memorial.

This marks the 75th anniversary of the Tuskegee Airmen and the 40th anniversary of the Chicago chapter.

The Tuskegee Airmen fought in World War II during a time when black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to Jim Crow laws.


For 20 years, flags have been placed at General John Logan Monument in Grant Park for fallen service people. On Monday, 6,888 flags representing all service members killed in Afghanistan and Iraq since 9/11 were placed on the hill leading up the monument.

"Our wars are still going on so there hasn't been a monument for those fighters to be honored. We wanted to make sure to do that today," said Sharene Shariatzadeh, executive director of the Chicago Cultural Mile.

The family of Airforce Major Phyllis Pelky, a 45-year-old Oak Lawn native who died last October, attended the event. She was killed in a military helicopter crash in Afghanistan and her family said Memorial Day has had new meaning since her death.

"It's always been a holiday weekend, barbecue, kind of thing," said Pelky's sister Cathy Berlin-Obregon. "Now I have someone to remember. It's kind of weird. Kind of hard to wrap my head around."

Berlin-Obregon and her brother, George Berlin, presented a wreath at the ceremony.


At the Chicago Yacht Club, a wreath was thrown into Lake Michigan as part of the traditional blessing of the fleet ceremony that is observed by sailors. The club's flag-raising ceremony is a Memorial Day tradition.

Gibby Vartan, past club commodore and a 35-year military veteran, never misses the ceremony.

"If you are a veteran, you certainly have lost some of your friends. It's very comforting to know the public does appreciate that service and in Chicago we do an exceptionally good job of recognizing veterans and their service," said Vartan, an Air Force veteran.

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