National Cemetery in Westwood, a place for quiet reflection on Veterans Day

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 11: A US Navy veteran Ruth Pico, left, with her 8-year-old son Nathan Pico pays her respect on Veterans Day at National Cemetery on Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023 in Los Angeles, CA. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
U.S. Navy veteran Ruth Pico, left, with her 8-year-old son, Nathan Pico, pays her respects on Veterans Day at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

After learning about Veterans Day in his transitional kindergarten class, Wilson Zeier, 4, asked his father what they could do to recognize the men and women who served.

So on Saturday morning Wilson stood with his father, Bill, and mother, Mai, on a knoll overlooking tens of thousands of white gravestones in rows on a lush green background at the Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood.

At the mid-morning hour, the cemetery where American service members from the Civil War onward are interred was reverentially still.

Every few minutes a figure would appear on the sloping lawn, moving slowly through the lines of gravestones.

Ruth Pico, a Navy veteran, moved sideways, stopping at each marker for a few seconds. She wore a T-shirt commemorating her godson Hunter Lopez, killed in action on Aug. 26, 2021, in a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. She said she couldn't make the trip to Riverside to honor his grave and so came to pay respects to those she didn't know.

"I like to go and read their names and thank them for their service and go on to the next one," she said, keeping an eye on her son Nathan, who was cavorting on the grass.

Pico said she has brought her son to the cemetery every year since he was a baby to imbue him with an understanding of service. She also thinks those buried there appreciate his presence.

"For a little bit I let him play and laugh," she said. "In my head, the veterans can hear the happiness and the joy of his laughing."

Pico had come with a bag of paper poppies and distributed them one to a headstone along with a penny to show family members that someone had been there.

While U.S. flags come out on Memorial Day, the other major holiday dedicated to service members, poppies are more identified with Veterans Day. Originally called Armistice Day and commemorating the Nov. 11, 1918, armistice that ended the fighting in World War I, the date is linked internationally to the opening lines of the haunting war poem "In Flanders Fields:”

In Flanders fields the poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row.

The commemoration became a U.S. national holiday in 1935 and was renamed in 1954.

Unlike Memorial Day, a holiday dating from the end of the Civil War and honoring those who died while serving in the armed forces, Veterans Day honors all veterans.

Formal Veterans Day events were held Saturday at Forest Lawn—Hollywood Hills and the Bob Hope Patriotic Hall near downtown, where Arnold Schwarzenegger was a special guest.

As the morning wore on, though, the National Cemetery remained a place for quiet reflection.

Kathy Collins, daughter and niece of World War II veterans, laid pennies on the headstones as she does every Veterans Day and Memorial Day.

Collins thinks it is important to sustain the memory of what her father's generation did.

"A lot of kids grow up and don't know veterans and what they did," she said. "And that's kind of sad."

Among the more than 80,000 graves, Collins said she tries to connect with individuals.

"You look at their age, like a guy today killed in action in Iraq—thinking about the younger veterans. We don't know that many of them because the military is so much smaller, proportionally."

Collins said she places pennies on headstones where there are flowers because that means there's still a family connection. When they return, they will know a stranger cared.

As he surveyed the gravestones with his son, Zeier said he hoped the experience had broadened Wilson's understanding.

"When you come to a place like this it can be very moving, very emotional," he said.

"He hasn't been to cemeteries before," Zeier said. "For us it's just walking around a little bit today, talking about the people that are buried here and also to introduce death, so he kind of understands what it is."

A flower rests on a tombstone.
Navy veteran Ruth Pico and her son Nathan Pico, 8, left flower stems on the tombstones on Veterans Day at Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.