Larry L. Melton Sr. and his family had the ideal ingredients for a Memorial Day lunchtime gathering Monday at Sesquicentennial State Park.
“This is combat food,” the retired Army command sergeant major said as he surveyed the bounty covering the red, white and blue-clad picnic tables in the outdoor shelter at the Northeast Richland park.
Melton’s family understands the sacrifices marking the day as well as any and better than most. In addition to his 30 years of service (including seven at Fort Jackson), his family’s resume includes his son, Larry Melton Jr., a former Marine; his daughter-in-law, Jackie Melton, a retired Marine colonel; his son-in-law, Barry Thomas Sr., a former Army staff sergeant; and his father-in-law, Wilson J. Bailey, a former Army sergeant.
But as the Columbia resident joined more than a dozen family members and friends at the park Monday, he deflected any praise to those who had given their lives to secure the county’s freedoms.
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“They are the ones who gave the ultimate sacrifice,” Melton said.
Monday was poised to be the last wartime Memorial Day in the 13 years since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. More than 100 service members and civilians from South Carolina have given their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan during that time. And hundreds more from the state still are serving as the war comes to a close.
Across the Northeast Richland park and around the Midlands, scores of families were enjoying gatherings and offering thanks for their freedom as they took time out for picnics and other outdoor activities to ring in the unofficial start of summer.
Just a few tables away from the Meltons, a group from East Lake Community church in Irmo was about to settle in for a picnic lunch. And much like the Meltons, the afternoon prayer offered by Michelle Trayers included words of gratitude for the men and women who fought for the country’s freedom.
“I grew up in a family that always honored the military,” Trayers said. “I think it’s important that our kids know the reason we have the day off.”
Larry Melton’s wife, Annie Melton, said their family celebrates all the military holidays and normally gets together for a meal on Memorial Day at someone’s home. But this year they decided to bring the gathering to the park.
“The (grand)kids can come out,” she said. “Rather than ripping and running through the house, they can rip and run here.”
Melton said she had sent thank-you messages on social media earlier in the day to family members who had served in the military and was encouraged by a visible increase in gratitude she noticed from the public.
“It’s really great to see so many people appreciating the military,” she said. “These soldiers are giving a lot. I’m just so grateful they are being appreciated.”
After enjoying a menu that included barbeque ribs and chicken, collard greens, potato salad, rice, beans, hot dogs and other fixings, several of the younger Melton family members headed to the lake to try their hands at casting, under the watchful eyes of the adults.
Larry Melton said that basic pleasures like those are things he never wants his family to take for granted. “Don’t ever forget those who played such a big role in you having what you have now.”