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052818 VFW luncheon

Volunteers with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2521 serve lunch during a Memorial Day potluck in Santa Maria.

As millions of people celebrated their three-day weekend off work or in bed, Patti Dougherty wandered the Santa Maria Cemetery before dawn Monday to help unfurl and hang flags for Santa Maria's annual Memorial Day ceremony.

"I don't consider it a sacrifice," said Dougherty, the president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2521 Auxiliary. The wife of a Korean and Vietnam War veteran, Dougherty said she took an active role in Monday's events to commemorate her late husband.

"He was proud to be a veteran," she said. "This is something I'm blessed to be able to help with."

Organized by American Legion Post 56 and VFW Post 2521, Monday's Memorial Day celebrations — which included a ceremony at the Santa Maria Cemetery and potluck luncheon at the VFW — provided an opportunity to connect veterans with their friends, families and members of the Santa Maria Valley community.

Dale Norris, a 26-year Air Force veteran who served in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, was among more than 50 people who flocked to the VFW Post for a free community luncheon.

Dale, who relocated to Santa Maria with his wife, Trisha, after their service, stressed the importance of using Memorial Day to recognize the sacrifices veterans made to ensure the freedoms of the American people.

"It's important to remember those who gave their all so we might enjoy the freedoms we have today," he said. "We live in the country we have today because others were willing to go forth and die to maintain these freedoms we enjoy."

His wife, Trisha, also a veteran, said the holiday took on new meaning after a  friend of theirs died in Afghanistan. 

"Today is important for us to let [their family] know that we're thinking of them and praying for them," she said.

Wearing a red poppy (a symbol honoring fallen soldiers) in her scarf, Santa Maria resident Anita Bates said she celebrates Memorial Day to honor family members who served in World War II and the Korean War.

"We want to share memories of [the living and dead] to keep us respectful of those who are serving our country," she said. "We try and sing patriotic songs and go to functions like this."

"Here you can chat across the table, meet with your family and catch up with other veterans," said Michael Stadnick Jr., a Vietnam War veteran and emcee of Monday's ceremony at the Santa Maria Cemetery. "We wanted to continue the community."

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.