FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) — For the first time since the pandemic began, a public Memorial Day ceremony was held at Florence National Cemetery.

Over the weekend, volunteers placed flags on each of the 12,000 tombstones, and a crowd gathered Monday to pay their respects to those who died in service to the United States. The ceremony featured cannon fire and a 21-gun salute.

Retired Col. Barry Wingard addressed the crowd and said it was great to see so many people show their support after two years of invitation-only ceremonies.

“These 12,000 graves around us hold many, many people who lost their lives while in the military and we need to pay respect to them,” Wingard said. “It’s great to see all these people out here today. I appreciate the great weather and great turnout. We had some very distinguished guests and visitors and I just think it went really well.”

“Every year, Memorial Day offers us an opportunity to reflect on those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defending our great nation,” said Col. Chris Hyman, Chief of Staff for the SC Army National Guard.

Wingard recognized elected officials, veterans and Gold Star mothers in attendance.

“We have two Gold Star moms with us,” he said. “The rest of us cannot fathom what your loss must be like. There are just no words. But know that you are surrounded by love today.”

One of the veterans he recognized was 97-year-old retired Air Force Lt. Col. Roland “Rocky” Gannon, whose military career spanned 37 years and included service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

“I left before I finished the 11th grade,” Gannon said. “A year later, I was flying a B-17. I had never driven a car in my life.”

He said in his nearly four decades in the armed forces, he knew many people who didn’t make it home. He was glad to see the community remember his friends.

“All these buddies, a lot of my classmates made it through pilot training and got killed on their very first mission over Germany,” he said. “Think about all those young kids. Never had a legal drink, probably never went to bed with a woman or made it past their high school dance. They never leave you. They’re always there.”