Image: Richard Blackaby
Chris Carlson  /  AP
Richard Blackaby stands at attention as a member of the honor guard carries the remains of a veteran during a internment ceremony at Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, Calif. Blackaby, an Army veteran, is among more than 300 volunteers who honor veterans buried in the cemetery by reading their names leading up to Memorial Day each year.
updated 5/24/2009 4:17:15 AM ET 2009-05-24T08:17:15

Abts, Richard. Adamski, Walter. Ahlman, Enoch.

The names are whisked away by the hot, gusting wind as soon as they are spoken, forgotten in the stream of the next name and the next name and the next name.

Fuller, Addison. Fuller, Mary. Furlong, John.

The story of America could be told through these names, tales of bravery and hesitation, of dreams achieved or deferred and of battles won and lost.

Taken alone, they are just words, identities stripped of place and time, stripped of rank and deeds and meaning.

But they are not taken alone. They are taken together — 148,000 They read in pairs, rotating through 15-minute shifts in the beating sun, in the chilly desert night and in the pre-dawn hours thick with mosquitoes.

Some time on Memorial Day, they will read the last name on the 2,465th page.

Some read for their country.

Others read for a father lost in battle or a beloved son cut down in his prime.

And one man reads for no one in particular — except, maybe, for himself.

Blackaby gives this time
Richard Blackaby was just 18 and fresh out of high school in 1966 when he was drafted for Vietnam. His father had served as a Seabee in the U.S. Navy during World War II and Blackaby was desperate to follow in his path.

But the Army said no: Blackaby had epilepsy and asthma and was unfit for service.

Twelve years later, Blackaby — now married with three children — reapplied to the Army and was accepted to the 4th Infantry Division as a forward observer.

But Vietnam was over and the eager recruit spent the next six years waiting for a war that never came. When he was honorably discharged in 1984, he was a sergeant but had never experienced combat, had never called in a real air strike or fired at a real target.

Nearly 25 years later, Blackaby's missed opportunity weighs on him as he patrols his self-selected battleground: Riverside, the nation's busiest national cemetery. While others gave their lives, Blackaby gives his time — and a lot of it, nearly 30 hours a week.

Over the years, Blackaby has made his specialty here not among the remembered and the honored, but among the lost, the abandoned and the forgotten. The work seems to fit his story of missed chances and dashed dreams, his yearning to belong to something greater than himself.

'They have to have friends'
Every day, the 60-year-old grandfather with the crinkly, blue-gray eyes slips on the black leather vest that's his personal uniform and stands at attention as the cemetery honors the cremated remains of dozens of abandoned or forgotten veterans.

Every day, he salutes as the National Guard reads the names off the simple wooden boxes filled with ashes.

Every day, he accepts the folded flag for soldiers he will never know — and then gives it back for the next day's dead.

Dog tags engraved with the names of 145 forgotten veterans dangle from a thick key chain that never leaves his side, a different color for each branch of service. He knows the story behind almost every name.

"If I didn't do it, who would do it?" he says. "I mean, they have friends, they HAVE to have friends. They don't go through a whole lifetime and not have somebody that cares about them."

And, true to form, Blackaby reads names — hundreds of them — for the roll call project.

'It kind of makes you wonder'
He reads for hours on overnight shifts in the cemetery's eerie gloom, the podium illuminated only by a floodlight. He reads during the weekend afternoons and late into a Saturday night to cover gaps in the schedule.

"Every one that we read off, I feel like I am probably doing their family a favor because they can't be here," he said.

"I'm reading off a whole litany of history. It kind of makes you wonder what's behind each name, what their life was like, what they did."

Overcoming adversity
Lamborn, Richard. Lamphear, Everett. Landaker, Jared.

A gust of wind springs up and snatches the last name away.

No one notices it and later, even the volunteer readers won't recall the name of the young Marine or which one of them read it.

All they know is he was a 1st lieutenant, fifth from the bottom on page seven of 2,465.

Joe Landaker was the first person to touch his son, Jared, as he slipped into the world on his parents' bed on May 3, 1981, after 36 hours of labor.

From the beginning, Jared was special — but not in the way most parents would want. His skull was compressed during birth and doctors warned that he might be mentally challenged.

During childhood, he kept falling off the growth chart. He barely topped out at 5-foot-8.

But Jared, who went by the nickname J-Rod, surprised everyone.

Jared takes off
He took calculus in high school, knuckled down in college and got a degree in physics. He signed up for the Marines his sophomore year and graduated from officer training school in Quantico, Va., among the top five in his platoon of 80 men.

By fall of 2003, he was in flight school and on Aug. 18, 2006, Jared shipped out for Iraq as a Marine helicopter pilot flying a CH-46 Sea Knight with the famed HMM-364 Purple Foxes.

"He overcame so many adversities in his life, time after time," said his father, Joe.

On Feb. 7, 2007, a week before Jared was expected home in Big Bear City, his father was watching CNN at 5:30 a.m., getting ready to go to work, when he saw that a CH-46 chopper had been shot down near while on a medical mission.

Two months before, when two Marines died in a CH-46 crash, Jared had e-mailed his parents within two hours to let him know he was OK.

But this time, hours passed with no word.

Father waits for a sign
"They said there were seven people on board, so I waited. I didn't go to work, waited and waited all day long, waited again for his e-mail or a phone call that he was all right," said Landaker, choking back tears. "It never did come."

At 4:15 p.m., a Marine captain, a chaplain and a 1st sergeant came to tell Landaker his son had died on his last mission before coming home.

Since that day, Landaker has been consumed with keeping his son's memory alive. He shares his story with anyone who will listen. He has memorized every detail of his son's life and death. He now knows that the boy who called him "Pops" took 58 seconds to lower his stricken chopper from 1,500 feet to 200 feet; seven seconds faster, and he might be alive today.

"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."

"He's so special to me," he said. "Those Iraqis have no idea who they killed."

The rows of grave markers are cool and smooth in the heat, their numbers obscured by tufts of grass that have crept around the edges of the stone.

Landaker walks, head bowed, along the rows of plots in Section 49B.

"3438. It should be right around here," he says, bending low.

Then Landaker falls to his knees, weeping.

'Take care, son'
The stories, the details don't matter now: There is no way to unbury the dead, to bring the CH-46 from 200 feet back to 1,500 feet, to reset the clock with seven extra seconds.

"Well, all right son," he says. "Take care, son."

And so he volunteers to help call the roll at Riverside. He will not have an opportunity to read his own son's name, but at least he can ensure that the sons of others are not forgotten.

An American story
The heat beats down on the volunteers. A dozen spectators press themselves into any sliver of shade — a tree, the thin shadow of the flagpole, an awning.

In the shade near the sign-in booth, Richard Blackaby and Joe Landaker stand ready to take the podium, two strangers awkwardly chatting before their shared 15 minutes of service.

Landaker wears a white T-shirt printed with Jared's photo; Blackaby, for once, has shed his black leather vest for a dark suit adorned with military ribbons and an American flag pin.

They discover a bittersweet bond: Blackaby escorted Jared's coffin to his military funeral at the cemetery two years before. The two men embrace, then step to the podium.

The names pass between them like fragile treasures.

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

Their 15 minutes pass, and they step down. Landaker, eyes red with tears, has another piece of his puzzle, another connection — another story to cling to.

But Blackaby is not finished. He steps forward again, ready to read for those who will never have the love of a father like Jared's. He will be there until 2:30 a.m. on this muggy Sunday and back again the next day and the next day and the next.

He is patrolling the boundaries of the past, filling gaps in this American story and in his own life — one name at a time.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Honoring those who served us

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  1. President Barack Obama delivers his remarks at the Arlington National Cemetery Memorial Day Commemoration, Monday, in Arlington, Va. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. President Barack Obama lays a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sailors wait for Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery. The United States is remembering the members of its armed services and those who have died serving the country today. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. A U.S. soldier holds the dog tag of 1st Lt. Roslyn Schulte, from Ladue, Mo., during a Memorial Day observance ceremony at Camp Eggers in Kabul, Afghanistan. On Monday the U.S. forces based at Camp Eggers gathered wearing khaki, camouflage and blue blazers to salute their latest dead comrades, Roslyn Schulte, and Shawn Pine from San Antonio, Texas, a former Army ranger who was working as a contractor to train Afghan army soldiers. (Rafiq Maqbool / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Visitors pay their respects at the National Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall during the Memorial Day weekend in Washington. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Laura Youngblood, widow of U.S. Navy Petty Officer Travis L. Youngblood, touches his gravestone in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery during the Memorial Day weekend in Arlington, Va., on Sunday, May 24. Youngblood died of wounds received in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in July of 2005 in Iraq. (Larry Downing / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Vietnam war veteran Bill Ebert looks at names engraved on The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., during the Memorial Day weekend. Memorial Day commemorates U.S. military personnel living and those killed in the line of duty. (Mandel Ngan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. The U.S. flag covers an American soldier during ceremonies for Memorial Day at the American Cemetery in suburban Taguig, south of Manila, Philippines. (Aaron Favila / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A woman greets motorcycle riders as they parade across the Potomac River for the annual Rolling Thunder POW-MIA demonstration for Memorial Day weekend in Washington. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Tiger Scout Robert Casal, 6, of Plainview, N.Y., is seen through an American flag as he places one during an annual event in honor of the Memorial Day holiday at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale N.Y. on Saturday. (David Goldman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Joe Landaker poses on April 28 at his home in Big Bear City, Calif., with a portrait of his son, Jared, a Marine helicopter pilot who died on his last mission in Iraq. Landaker is among more than 300 volunteers who honor veterans buried in Riverside National Cemetery by reading their names leading up to Memorial Day each year. (Chris Carlson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. In preparation for Memorial Day, Vaughn Schwalm of Pine Grove, Pa., first vice president of the National Sojourners, works on a 5,100-flag instillation for service men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, in Annville, Pa., on Friday. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Terri Clifton, of Milford, Del., watches as Army soldiers place U.S. flags on the graves of Section 60 at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on Thursday. Clifton's son, Marine Lance Cpl.. Chad Clifton, was killed in 2005 in Iraq and is buried at Arlington. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Charles Vanlanot, of Elizabethtown, Pa., right, past squadron commander for the United States Navy Club, and Edward Walter of Marietta, Pa., co-chair of the Massing of the Colors ceremony, hang a sign over the entrance of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, in Annville, Pa., Friday. The flags in the foreground are part of a 5,100-flag installation for service men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Horace Mann Middle School student Cole Jenkins, 13, places flags at National Cemetery in Little Rock, Ark., Friday. Students from the school located near the cemetery have been placing flags before Memorial Day for more than 20 years. (Danny Johnston / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Harold Lehman, of Pine Grove, Pa., kneels at his father's grave after placing flowers at Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, in Annville, Pa., Friday. Lehman's father, also named Harold, served in the 82nd Airborne Division in WWII. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Army Pvt. Zach Lawson, 22, of Portland, Ore., places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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