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Originally published Sunday, May 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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At California veterans cemetery, a roll call to honor all buried there

Volunteers are spending eight days reading aloud the names of all 148,000 veterans buried at a California veterans cemetery.

The New York Times

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — For eight days, a constant flow of volunteers came to Riverside National Cemetery to stand at two lecterns and read the names of all 148,000 military veterans and soldiers buried here. They have read at varied paces in high, low, steady and wavering voices in shifts 24 hours a day.

It is the first such unbroken roll call at any national veterans cemetery in the country, said Michael Nacincik, a spokesman for the National Cemetery Administration in Washington.

The "roll call program" began as an idea by Riverside cemetery employees, said Gill Gallo, the cemetery's director. They started asking for volunteers in April.

"So many people responded," Gallo said. "We were amazed. It's theirs now. They made it come to life."

Gallo stood in the bright sunlight Friday as volunteers came and went, signing their names and waiting for their turns to read.

When she stood at the lectern, Gwendolyn Goodlett, 63, dedicated her reading to her husband, Elijah Goodlett, a Vietnam veteran who died two years ago.

Goodlett alternated reading names with Henry Salazar, 63, at the lectern next to her. Salazar had been in Vietnam the same year as Goodlett's husband, 1967-8, though the two men never met.

"But there's a comradeship," said Salazar, wearing an "MIA-POW" T-shirt tucked into his jeans. "I feel that when I read these names. It's healing."

Robert Vasquez, 65, an Army veteran, agreed. "It connects you for a brief moment, kind of like they're standing by you. You think something about their life. Did they die a natural death or in service?"

Joe Landaker is another volunteer reader. His son, Jared, 27, a helicopter pilot, died in 2007 when his chopper was shot down on a medical mission.

He will not have an opportunity to read his son's name, but at least he can ensure that the sons of others are not forgotten.

"The last thing I want to do is forget about Jared. He comes to my mind all the time, songs, things that you see," said Landaker. "When he was a baby, I'd give him a shower and I'd hold him up and those kind of memories come to mind all the time. ... Those Iraqis have no idea who they killed."

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A bond between strangers

In the shade near the sign-in booth earlier last week, Landaker and Richard Blackaby, a Vietnam veteran, stood ready to take the podium, two strangers awkwardly chatting before their shared 15 minutes of service.

Landaker wore a white T-shirt printed with Jared's photo; Blackaby was in a dark suit adorned with military ribbons and an American flag pin.

They discovered a bittersweet bond: Blackaby escorted Jared's coffin to his military funeral at the cemetery two years before. The two men embraced and stepped to the podium.

The names passed between them like fragile treasures.

White, Clark. White, Mary. Whito, Russell.

Their 15 minutes passed, and they stepped down.

On Friday, a line of cars was filled with mourners on their way to some of the 34 funerals held that day.

This is the "busiest" of the 128 Veterans Affairs cemeteries, said Nacincik, with 8,340 people interred last year. Of those cemeteries, Riverside has buried the most soldiers from the current wars, Gallo said, with 71 who died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"When you think of how many we're losing every day, it brings it home," said Rae Lee Escalera, 53, who came to place fresh flowers on the grave of her brother, George, and stayed to listen to the names.

The roll call was not in alphabetical order, so there was no way to know when a name would be read. But Escalera arrived just in time to hear her brother's.

"Amazing," she said and shook her head. "George Arthur Davis. I miss him."

"I'm here for you"

On a stretch of lawn nearby, three women placed bundles of carnations and lilies by a flat headstone. Two rows down, a gravedigger stood shoulder-deep in the ground.

The last of the 500 volunteers are expected to finish reading the names Monday.

About 680,000 veterans died in the United States in 2008, said Nacincik, a majority having fought in World War II. Southern California has a high concentration of older veterans. Many retired in the area after working or training on local military bases.

On the walls of a monument nearby, the names of all Medal of Honor recipients since the 19th century are carved in gold. A handful are listed from Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by blank space awaiting more.

Beneath the name of Michael Murphy, 29, a Navy SEAL who died in Afghanistan in 2005, lay a blue toy car atop a folded U.S. flag.

Nearby, Goodlett and Salazar sat in folding chairs and listened. Goodlett said she felt as if she were speaking to those buried in the cemetery.

"When I say the names," Goodlett said, eyes closed, "it feels like, 'I'm here for you. Do you hear your name?' "

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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