Stephen Michael Ronge served as an aviation electrician’s mate on the carrier USS Kitty Hawk during the Vietnam War. After leaving the Navy and returning home to Los Angeles, Ronge spoke of moving back to San Diego some day.
His family didn’t know that it would be his March burial at Miramar National Cemetery.
Ronge’s relatives, some from as far away as Spain, were among those remembering veterans Sunday at a Memorial Day event at Miramar.
Ronge received the National Defense Service Medal and was honorably discharged after six years of military service. His namesake son also served on the Kitty Hawk.
“Just knowing that we have this open space of all of these military personnel, all the vets who fought for us to be able to be here and honor them is like being in the park with them, said Ronge’s daughter, Linda Acuna. “And it feels good to be here.”
Another daughter, Elizabeth Linder, said, “It’s just beautiful, and especially when you can catch the jets flying over — amazing.”
After a 45-minute ceremony, about a dozen family members held hands in a circle around Ronge’s grave, decorated with a birthday balloon, a purple lei, and red, white and blue flowers, including roses. His headstone was placed there Friday, his birthday.
Rain stopped drizzling just before the 1 p.m. event started, but some visitors used blankets and jackets and sat against a wall to keep warm in the cool temperatures.
Members of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Band played the armed service songs of each branch of the military, while audience members who served in those branches stood.
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Ceremonies included talks by Col. Charles B. Dockery, commanding officer of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and Master Sgt. Matthew Foster, San Diego County Veteran of the Year.
Dockery encouraged visitors to spend time learning about the military members in the cemetery by pausing to read the headstones.
Foster said after two years being out of the military, he began to volunteer. He now gives about 40 hours of his time a week to veterans in the North County.
“You’d be amazed what happens when you start volunteering,” Foster said, “It gets really addicting helping people. It turns into the best addiction in the world.”
Visitors were also told a new Veterans Legacy Memorial website would be developed to honor of servicemen.
Brian Alvin, chief of operations of the Pacific District of the National Cemetery Administration, said visitors to the website — www.cem.va.gov — can learn about veterans, and people can upload information about family members by the end of the year, he said.
“It is said that we each die two deaths: the first when breath leaves us for the last time, and second, the last time someone speaks our name or tells our story,” Alvin said. “It is the second that the National Cemetery Association is dedicated to ensure never happens.”
Alvin said it was vital that the legacy of service members was safeguarded “so they continue to live in perpetuity.”
Speaking of the Sunday program, Ronge daughter Acuna said: “It was very touching. It was hard not to cry. From now on, [it’s] something we will do every year.”
“I live in that neighborhood,” she said pointing to an area not far away. From her home, she can see the flags of the cemetery. It’s close enough that she comes to the cemetery weekly to bring her father flowers.
“Memorial Day will always be a remembrance of his life in addition to his service now,” Acuna says.
Memorial Day events will continue Monday throughout the country. See listings here.