He can't talk about the losses he witnessed. Vietnam veteran M. Gilmore spent a year and a half with the U.S. Navy in the Philippines before Vietnamization brought him deeper into the conflict zone, where "I got more than I bargained for."
Memorial Day "is a sad day," he said.
It began as Decoration Day after the Civil War -- some say as a tribute to the sacrifices made by African American soldiers in securing their freedom. Today it honors all who died in the nation's battles, a time to consider what is asked of its people and what is given when the country goes to war.
Alas, "most people don't have a clue," said Thom Donnelly.
Donnelly, a pacifist, grew up in a small town in New Jersey where the annual Memorial Day parade would end at the cemetery.
"It's a holiday for reflection," he said. "But it's become a day for launching summer." That it falls on a different day each year is a sign of the nation's ambivalence, he said: "The Fourth of July is always on the Fourth of July, even if it's on a Wednesday. Memorial Day is supposed to be on May 31."
A question posed in downtown Berkeley Saturday about the personal meaning of the holiday largely drew blank stares. No formal ceremony was planned in the city, although an interactive online memorial launched by "Country Joe" McDonald speaks to the human cost of the Vietnam War and enables visitors to contribute.
A Berkeley firefighter said this is a day to remember "all of them, all the ones who gave us the freedom to do just about anything we want," including those who survived but have paid a heavy toll.
"They come back missing a leg, missing an arm, injured -- injured emotionally," he said.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who represents Berkeley, concurs.
"As a way to honor these heroes, I ask that we recommit ourselves to caring for and serving our veterans and their families," the Oakland Democrat said in her Memorial Day message. But wounded veterans are waiting on average 320 days for benefit decisions --Iraq vet and UC Berkeley student David Smith waited 414 days -- a problem Lee called "unacceptable and persistent."
Lee and U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, held a clinic at the Veterans War Memorial Building in San Francisco last week on the backlog, teaming wounded service personnel with claims specialists. The lawmakers said they plan to follow up on Veterans Administration promises to have cut the waiting time by March 2013.