PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Hundreds gathered at the Willamette National Cemetery Monday morning to honor America’s fallen service members who died fighting to protect the nation.

Following a two-year hiatus, brought on by the pandemic, the Memorial Day commemoration ceremony was the first in-person tribute held at the SE Portland cemetery since 2019.

Cemetery director and army veteran Jared Howard told KOIN 6 News returning to an in-person format for this important holiday was crucial, not just for the cemetery staff, but also for the friends and families of those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

“It means everything,” Howard stated. “The families come out here to visit every day and this is the one day that we get to join them and let them know that they’re not alone … “We may not have known them, but we love them for what they did for our country, and that’s what today is all about.”

This year’s solemn wreath-laying ceremony was accompanied by speeches, music, a rifle salute and a fly-over display —but Navy Veteran Mick Estes said that is not why he comes out to the cemetery each year.

“My dad is up here,” Estes told KOIN 6 News. “He served in World War II, and I miss him. I lost him at a very young age, and that’s one of the main reasons I come up here.”

However, Estes is not alone. More than 188,000 Veterans and their family members have been laid to rest on the nearly 300 acres at Willamette National Cemetery.

For Howard, beyond reflection and remembering, Memorial Day is an opportunity to teach the next generation to honor the Nation’s true heroes.

“The Avengers, Marvel Comics, they’re great. But there are real-life heroes that are buried here, and that’s what we need to teach our children,” Howard said. “To come here, to pay respects, to learn the stories of the great men and women that are our nation’s heroes that I have the privilege of taking care of every day.”

In light of Memorial Day, the Willamette National Cemetery has extended visiting hours until 7 p.m. Monday.