As the nation prepared to celebrate Memorial Day by relaxing with family and friends, some U.S. soldiers partook in a far more somber ritual: Visiting the gravesites of fallen comrades.
Staff Sgt. Bradley Falls, an Afghanistan veteran, said he deemed it an honor to come to Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery and plant fresh, crisp flags in the burial plots of soldiers past.
“It’s especially an honor for us when you’ve been on the other side of it and now you can come here and you can bring honor to their final resting place,” Falls said.
“We all know somebody buried here personally,” he said as he leaned down and jabbed a small flag into the soil.[cnn-video url="http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2009/05/21/azuz.memorial.day.meaning.cnn"%5D
Sgt. Cherry Smith, an Iraq veteran, said she has a greater appreciation for the sacrifice of men and women in uniform.
“Now that I’ve actually served and came from Iraq, (I realize) they paid the way, so without them we wouldn’t be here,” she said.
But the stoic remembrances were not just left to service members. Civilians also have found ways to memorialize U.S. soldiers killed in combat.
Numerous cities around the nation planned Memorial Day observances to honor the U.S. armed forces.
High school student Ricky Gilleland, 17, runs a website that serves as a virtual database for soldiers killed in the line of duty.
Looking at his website, Preserveandhonor.com, Ricky said he is struck by how young the men and women were who have given their lives for their country.[cnn-video url="http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2011/05/28/endo.arlington.digital.record.cnn"%5D
“It’s sad because I come here and look at the birth dates and death dates and I think, ‘These are kids not much older than me,'" he said.
The site has received more than 1 million hits since its October launch.
Ricky said his intent is to provide families with a way, however small, to commune with their dead loved ones and appreciate their sacrifice.
“I hope that they can go on (the website) and feel a little bit of comfort in knowing that they’re not just a number of casualties, or anything like that, they’re actual people.”
Also, the nation's military leaders expressed admiration for soldiers serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and bases around the world.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates choked up recently when talking about the responsibility of sending Americans off to two wars.
"I've done my best to care for them as though they were my own sons and daughters," Gates said when he was at the White House last month. "They are the best America has to offer ... And I will miss them deeply."
"Virtually every day since taking this post, I've written condolence letters to the families of the fallen," Gates said in a videotaped Memorial Day message. "I will always keep all of you in my heart and in my prayers as long as I live - as should all Americans."
Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, recalled the loss of his buddies while he served in Vietnam.
He said his Memorial Day will be spent at home in El Paso, Texas, visiting the Fort Bliss National Cemetery and the grave of his father-in-law, who served in World War II and Korea.
"The experience of Vietnam, at least for me, is not just reserved for Memorial Day," Reyes said from his Washington office. "I think back to the buddies I lost in Vietnam."
"War is not like it is in the movies ... there is no music. There is constant fear, body parts, death."