On a windy Memorial Day morning at the Black Hills National Cemetery just east of Sturgis, families, veterans and public officials gathered to honor the nation's war dead.

Political leaders from Washington, D.C., including U.S. Secretary of the Interior Department Ryan Zinke, U.S. Sen. John Thune and U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, sat alongside officials from the cemetery and local veteran organizations on stage Monday as wreathes were laid and Taps was played. 

Zinke, a former Navy Seal, talked about Memorial Day growing up in Whitefish, Mont.  

"The veterans walked by, ushered by grandchildren holding flags." He joked that the then-young Vietnam veterans didn't "march as well" as the older World War I or World War II veterans. But he said now, increasingly Vietnam Vets are seen as the elder statesmen in veterans organizations.

"We don't sacrifice the older men, but the youth," he said.

Monday's event, presented by the South Dakota VFW, had somber moments, too. Rick Williamson, State VFW Commander of South Dakota, asked Gold Star families — those families who've lost a family member in combat — to raise their hands. He also noted, his voice breaking, that "22 veterans every day take their own life."

"And that's too many."

Following the 11 a.m. ceremony, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe also held a similar ceremony for Native American veterans, at which Zinke, Thune and Noem spoke.

On Monday, Craig Weber, a Vietnam Veteran and former member of the Air Force at Ellsworth Air Force Base, visited the gravestone of his wife, Geraldine, who died in 1990. 

"We can really appreciate it in a new way," said Marci. 

Zinke has toured the Dakotas since last week, including the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site outside Philip, the Badlands and Mount Rushmore.

"I've reassessed the beauty of western South Dakota," he said after the service. "I always knew there were good people here, but now I'm impressed by the places, too."

Noem, who authored legislation to transfer 200 acres from the Bureau of Land Management to the cemetery, said the expansion was needed to honor the "astounding number of South Dakota patriots" who have served in the military. 

"It was truly an honor to put legislation on President Trump's desk," she said.

Thune said Memorial Day is often associated with lilacs blooming, the crack of a bat at Legion ballparks across the state and paying respects to the armed services. He said doubling the cemetery will ensure "future generations can be laid to rest in the spectacular setting." 

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