Sergeant Eugene Putney bought his parents a radio in 1948. His niece, Cyndi Duran, remembers that the gift sat in her grandparents’ kitchen throughout her childhood.

Though she never met him “I always knew I had an Uncle Gene. He was that present in my grandparents’ home,” Duran said. 

Putney was a supply truck driver with the 2nd Infantry Division during a Cold War conflagration that the United States saw as part of an international battle against communism. The Korean War began in the summer of 1950 when soldiers from Soviet-backed North Korea crossed the 38th parallel into South Korea. U.S. troops arrived within weeks of the invasion to support the South. Three years and some 5 million deaths later, the war ended. The Korean peninsula remains divided.

A man who had fought alongside Putney told the family “Uncle Gene” had died in his arms after being shot in the chest, stomach and leg in a fierce battle in 1951. Both the witness and Putney were taken prisoner after that fight. The army, though, said the account could not be verified. Putney’s parents died with neither the closure of having his remains identified and sent home, nor official word of what had happened. He was one of four sons they saw off to war and the only one not to return. 

In 2014, Putney’s sister and brothers decided it was time, even without a body, to place a marker for him alongside the graves of their parents. Mourners who filed into the clapboard Olathe Assembly of God Church on a hot summer day were handed packets of gum. The last letter Putney’s parents sent him contained gum and candy. The parents’ letter and treats, which had been sent as birthday presents, were returned as undeliverable.

For the long-delayed memorial service, relatives decorated the church with patriotic bunting and streamers in vases, and photographs of a 19-year-old Putney. He had not yet grown into his ears or his military cap. His smile was slight and mischievous.

“I hope this heals your heart,” a tearful Duran told her aunt, Oneta Ballard.

“My family deserves closure,” Duran continued, turning to other mourners who included great grandnieces who had taken up the patriotic theme by layering on three tank tops each, in red, white and blue.

If tank tops might have struck some as too casual for church, others might have seen them as genuine and unpretentious. And they certainly suited the weather once the group made its way to the cemetery.

Ballard cried as a guard of honor presented a folded flag “on behalf of a grateful nation.” Taps sounded over the gathered generations.

Among the seven riflemen who fired a 21-gun salute were members of Welcome Home Montrose, a grassroots project to support veterans that I had come to western Colorado to write about. Welcome Home Montrose veterans also held flags and stood at attention under an ungentle sun. 

Veterans have always taken the lead in remembering their fallen comrades. In 1868, three years after the Civil War ended, the head of the Grand Army of the Republic declared that Decoration Day should be observed at the end of May. The Grand Army, formed by men who had fought for the Union, was the largest veterans organization of the time.  In his Decoration Day proclamation, Grand Army leader Maj. Gen. John A. Logan urged that graves be heaped “with the choicest flowers of springtime.” 

“We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance,” Logan went on. “Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.”

After World War I, all those who died in all American wars were remembered on the holiday. Since 1971 Memorial Day has been a national holiday. On the last Monday in May, we remember the fallen and honor those still standing and determined to keep serving.