Randolph Macon Academy cadets stand at attention around the wreath honoring soldiers who have died while serving the country.

FRONT ROYAL — Citizens gathered Monday at the gazebo not only to honor the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom, but also their four-legged comrades.

Malcolm Barr, the co-chair of the seventh annual Memorial Day Commemoration Ceremony, noted that Front Royal’s Memorial Day event is unique in that it honors the “dogs of war” who have been deployed and saved hundreds of soldiers’ lives.

He said that this theme is fitting for a ceremony in Front Royal as the Remount Center in Warren County trained the dogs who played critical roles in World War II.

“The war dogs are true guardians our soldiers,” Barr said.

The ceremony was also dedicated to local veterans who died earlier this year: Air Force Master Sgt. Norman Brander; Navy veteran Marvin Reifsneyder; and Philip Funk, a former town employee who participated in past ceremonies. Those gathered also paid tribute to Army Pvt. Samuel Albert Hallman, a Front Royal native who died during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.

Robert MacDougall, the commemoration’s co-founder and a Marine Corps veteran, added that the ceremony is meant to honor and thank everyone who paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect America and other countries.

“Remember that freedom is not free,” he said.

MacDougall noted that over 1 million soldiers have died in warfare, several hundred of whom were from Warren County and Front Royal.

The keynote speaker for the ceremony was Skip Rogers, Army veteran and executive director of the non-profit Able Forces Professional Services that assists wounded veterans in finding employment.

Rogers noted that thousands of war dogs have been deployed in wars throughout the world and have played critical roles in saving lives. For example, he said that dogs who participated in the Korean War have been credited with reducing deaths by 65 percent.

He noted that war dogs have also been appointed as the lead for infantry units and as guards protecting entries to military bases.

During the Vietnam War, Rogers said that every war dog had a price on its head, and the only deaths enemy troops wished for more was their handlers. He added that their service continues today, as there are 2,500 war dogs, 1,700 of whom have participated in wars.

“The value of these animals can be seen when injured. Military war dogs are treated the same as any military personnel when injured. They are operated on and cared for by the same military personnel that takes care of every one of our branch of service members,” he said.

Micheal Williams, the son of a former Air Force dog handler, noted that war dogs used to “be treated like equipment and when they served their purpose, they were destroyed.” Since then, he noted that the dogs of war are allowed to go home with their handlers and help soldiers in battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It brings me joy to see how they’re treated now,” he said.

After Williams spoke, he invited all attendees at the ceremony who brought dogs to march around the gazebo in honor of the canines.

MacDougall noted that for families of soldiers who lost their lives, Memorial Day is every day and not just one day of the year.

“It is important that each of us are here today to collectively express, in our small way, our debt of gratitude for those whose ultimate sacrifice while in service of this nation has helped to ensure our freedom and the freedom of countless people around the world. As we all know, this freedom has been purchased at a tremendous human price,” he said.

During a prayer, The Rev. Vince McLaughlin expressed thanks “that we have set apart this day, not just for celebration but also for solemn remembrance as we consider the sacrifice of so many who have blessed us.”

“We ask for continual growth in peace through our world today so that fewer and fewer men and women will have to risk and even sacrifice their lives,” he said.

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