Veterans and their families gathered Monday at American Legion Post 23 for a Memorial Day service.

Filling most of the building’s seats, the guests sat at tables covered with red, white or blue tablecloths. Many of the veterans wore American Legion caps identifying the war in which they served.

Keynote speaker Ted Austin, an Air Force veteran and former chairman of the Department of Kentucky American Legion, focused on soldiers who went missing in action and the lingering effects their absences have on their families when he addressed the crowd.

“There’s some comfort in visiting a gravesite,” he said.

But since World War 1, about 90,000 American soldiers have gone missing. “For those 90,000 families, there is no closure,” Austin said.

When a soldier doesn’t return, it can be devastating to the family, Austin said.

“We must never forget the families of our fallen,” he said. “Long after the guns go silent, the bombs stop exploding, the children of our fallen warriors will still be missing a parent. Spouses will be without the life partners, and parents will continue to grieve for their sons and daughters that died way too early.”

Austin also stressed how veterans’ sacrifices have changed the world.

“Without a U.S. military, as we sit here today, the world would be a far more oppressive and darker place to live in,” he said. “Freedom has never had a greater friend than an American soldier.”

Wallace Devasher, who built bridges and cleared escape routes as a combat engineer in the Korean War, attended the event and shared some memories of his time in the war.

Combat engineering was a dangerous job, he said, because there was a risk of falling off the bridge while it was being built or getting killed in a dynamite blast and even then, he couldn’t escape the war’s carnage.

“I was never in battle or anything, but I saw a lot of dead GIs,” he said. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”

Though he was never in combat, there was one episode when a Korean detachment chased his group. While they were fleeing, he and his comrades had to abandon the truck they fled in, jumping out as it barreled down the road and retreating into a foxhole.

Devasher has been attending the Memorial Day service since he joined the American Legion, though he said he had no idea how long ago he joined.

“It’s a good place to be,” he said. “You see a lot of old friends.”

Harriet Downing, widow of former Western Kentucky University President Dero Downing, who served in the Navy during World War II, attended the event, which she looks forward to every year because it allows her to reunite with old friends.

During the war, Dero Downing was a part of the D-Day invasion force while Harriet Downing raised her first child.

“I guess that was the last war we had where the whole country was united behind it,” she said, referencing the less than welcoming response some Vietnam veterans got when they returned from the war. “It was a different type of war. Everyone was involved in support. Everyone cooperated.”

She said honoring veterans is important because they need to know they’re appreciated, Harriet said. “It means so much to know that people still support and care for those who served,” she said. 

— Follow Daily News reporter Jackson French on Twitter @Jackson_French or visit bgdailynews.com.

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