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A Time to Remember : As War Dead Are Honored, One Event Includes Gay Group

June 01, 1993|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his podium overlooking Los Angeles National Cemetery on Monday, Lt. Col. Michael Teilmann respectfully called out the names of veterans organizations whose leaders carried wreaths in memory of the nation's war dead:

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The Culver City Elks Lodge, American Legion Post 939, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Jewish War Veterans. And the Gold Coast Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans of America.

For the first time in the 104-year history of the National Cemetery in Westwood, gay veterans were formally honored at the city's largest Memorial Day ceremony in what was called a small but symbolic recognition of gays in the military.

The National Cemetery event was one of numerous Memorial Day ceremonies held in the county as scores of people from Pomona to Canoga Park gathered for graveside services, parades and picnics.

Throughout the county, veterans converged at cemeteries in song and prayer. At Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, former soldiers listened to a rousing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung by the Hollywood Lutheran Church Choir. In Gardena, Long Beach, Whittier and Glendale, military officers and decorated veterans delivered speeches, and uniformed color guards raised flags.

In Canoga Park, more than 100 drill teams, Scout troops and bands stepped lively for a Memorial Day parade. Hundreds of spectators gathered for the event, which featured local veterans groups, floats and antique cars.

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In Westwood, about 500 veterans, their family and friends gathered amid acres of 81,000 white stone grave markers to observe a solemn holiday that for many Americans is viewed more as a long kickoff weekend of the summer season rather than a commemoration of the nation's war dead.

"What a shame this holiday has been forgotten by most Americans," Dale Nadel, of the Jewish War Veterans, told the assembly. "Most celebrate on this as a holiday and forget those who have died."

As national debate swirls around whether to lift a ban on homosexuals in the military, Thomas A. Swann, co-founder of the 30-member chapter of the Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Veterans, said it was a momentous occasion to place a pale, yellow flowered wreath alongside wreaths representing 27 other veterans organizations.

"This is not a protest, it is an honor," Swann said. "It is a time to salute all gay, lesbian and bisexuals who have served this country."

Although the gay group's flowers could be displayed on a tripod, Swann was not permitted to stand on the platform with military dignitaries and the heads of other veterans groups.

Cemetery director Helen Szumylo said Swann's organization is not recognized by Congress like other veterans groups, so Swann could not take a place next to military officers and local heads of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

"As far as presenting a wreath, no problem. This was the first time they had come forward and they were treated just like everyone else that wanted to present a wreath," Szumylo said. "But since there are no gay or lesbian groups chartered by Congress, they are not going to be introduced on the podium."

The recognition of gay veterans took some in attendance by surprise and drew tacit approval from others.

"We are all here to honor the war dead, not to make a political statement," said Anthony Monaco, 43, a Vietnam veteran who displayed a Purple Heart on his lapel.

Filbert Barjas, 51, also a Vietnam veteran, did not mind the recognition.

"I had buddies who were gay in the service," Barjas said. "They were heroes too. They served. They should be honored."

In his keynote speech, Maj. Gen. Patrick H. Brady, an Army deputy commanding general, recalled a soldier's tombstone inscription reading: "They sacrificed their youth so that liberty might grow old."

Brady, a Vietnam medic veteran who rescued 5,000 wounded soldiers during two tours of duty, praised those who died in war for "two fundamental qualities: courage and sacrifice," saying that "much of the freedom and prosperity of this country is the result of the sacrifice of veterans."

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