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Thousands visit Arizona’s National Memorial Cemetery to honor those who paid the ultimate sacrifice

Posted at 10:35 PM, May 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-26 01:35:53-04

CAVE CREEK, AZ — For many Americans, Memorial Day marks the state of summer. They view it as a day off work, to hit the lakes and grill out with family. For countless others though, the holiday is marked by mourning, not celebrating.

At the Arizona National Memorial Cemetery in Cave Creek, thousands took time Monday to stop a gravesite.

Some came in groups, while others grieved alone.

Nearly everyone brought flowers, a penny, or a flag.

One young woman wore a graduation gown, while Isaias Merida stood out in the 95-degree heat wearing his dress blues.

"Every memorial day, I put my uniform back on," said Merida. "It's a holiday to everyone else, but to me it's life."

The 29-year-old, from the west side of Phoenix, served four years in the Army.

"I came out here because I lost one of my best friends in Afghanistan, in 2012 - Sergeant Navarro," he said.

Sgt. Juan P. Navarro was a man who led from the front.

"He became a mentor to me, and a coach and we became really good friends.

But at the age of 23, Navarro "was killed in action from a roadside IED. "

Merida's little brother, Anthony, also served in the Air Force.

"He was a senior airman. And unfortunately, he took his own life," said Merida.

The pain of losing a younger brother is something Roy Batista has the misfortune of knowing.

"I'm here to see my brother, Lance Corporal Atzin," said Batista, who served in the Marine Corps, along with his little brother.

In years past every single headstone was adorned with an American flag, but this year, due to the pandemic, that was not the case.

COVID-19 though, could not stop 86-year-old Jewell Johnson from visiting her husband, LeRoy Johnson, who served in both WWII and the Korean War.

"He loved God, he loved his country, and he loved his family," said Mrs. Johnson. "He was a true American. "

LeRoy Johnson passed away in 2019 at 92, but Jewell thinks about others from their generation who were robbed of growing old.

"The young men from my town in Minnesota, who never came back. They were very young," said Johnson, choking back tears.

"They really are our true heroes," said Batista.

As Memorial Day comes to a close many will begin looking forward to the next holiday.

But for some, like Batista, "Memorial Day is not just the end of May. For me, It's every day."

"They're on my mind all the time," said Merida.