John Vaughn put on a crisp Navy uniform and went to the veterans memorial at County Square in Greenville on Monday to remember friends who died in Vietnam decades ago.
While Memorial Day for many is a time to enjoy family and friends, Vaughn said it's more personal for him.
Among the dead, he said, was his best friend, who left behind a wife, a 4-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.
"The list could go on and on," Vaughn told scores of veterans and their supporters.
They had gathered under a giant U.S. flag hanging from two fire truck ladders to remember fallen comrades. The annual ceremony was often somber but also included an Elvis Presley impersonator, who was a former Fort Jackson drill instructor.
Many veterans in attendance served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, but a few World War II vets also stood to be recognized. Veterans from the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan were also on hand.
The ceremony program included a list of seven names — four from the Upstate — who were identified as the 2013 South Carolina Palmetto Fallen Heroes. All were state residents who died in military operations in the past year.
State Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, somberly read their names aloud during the ceremony:
PFC Barrett L. Austin of Easley; Sgt. Channing B. Hicks of Greer; Sgt. John D. Meador II of Columbia; 1st Lt. Ryan D. Rawl of Lexington; Chief Warrant Officer 5 Curtis S. Reagan of Summerville; PFC Adam C. Ross of Lyman; and Sgt. 1st Class Matthew B. Thomas of Travelers Rest.
Jimmy Fields, the Elvis impersonator, sang a few familiar oldies, but it was "America the Beautiful" and a gospel song that brought the crowd to its feet. He wore a white jumpsuit with a jeweled eagle on the back.
Between songs, Fields told the crowd that the day isn't about him.
"This is actually about the people who gave it all," he said. "I gave part, but giving it all — that's the ultimate sacrifice."
Vaughn, a former chief petty officer from Fork Shoals, said that if people are asked about who paid for freedom, they might point to Arlington National Cemetery or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall.
But another group is all too often overlooked, he said. It includes the mother who watches a flag-draped coffin go by, a widow who has to pick up the pieces of her shattered life and children who can't understand why their fathers aren't coming home, Vaughn said.
"That is what Memorial Day means to us, and that is why I wear this uniform," he said. "I wear it to honor those who never came home."
Vaughn later helped Ruth Helen Massey place a red, white and blue wreath in front of Greenville's Veterans Monument and Wall of Remembrance. Massey’s son, John William Massey Jr., was 20 when he died in Vietnam.
Vaughn and Massey saluted before returning to their seats.
Soon after, the color guard marched to the side of the monument and stood at attention during a rifle volley and the playing of "Taps."