MARIETTA — Robert Sheldon, a retired brigadier general from the Georgia National Guard, sat front row as veterans, officials and local community members shared Memorial Day remembrances at the Marietta National Cemetery on Monday.

Sheldon, age 91, a WWII veteran, said his service took him all over the globe, "from Alaska to South America."

"Wherever there was a problem, I was sent by the National Guard bureau chief," he said. "My job was to take care of problems."

Sheldon enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1945, the final year of WWII, and served until the following year. In 1951, he joined the Georgia National Guard, where he served until 1987. 

The Marietta resident said since his retirement, he dons his uniform only once or twice per year, to pay homage to the men and women who have fallen serving the country or to those who served and later died.

"So many of them that I know are no longer with me," he said. "I come here to mourn them, plus the other people, who I don't know that are here... I come here to mourn for those guys who gave their best for this country."

Speakers and guests at the annual Memorial Day ceremony included Marietta Mayor Steve Tumlin, Donna Rowe, a retired US Army captain who served as head emergency triage nurse at the U.S. Army’s 3rd Field Hospital in Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and keynote speaker Brigadier Gen. Diana Holland, who commands the South Atlantic Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Holland's address challenged the ceremony's attendees to observe Memorial Day with the expected cookouts and family gatherings, but also with solemn reverence for its intended purpose.

"Memorial Day is a day that a grateful nation musters its citizens to officially and sincerely remember those who gave all. But Memorial Day is also for the living. Human beings need to connect with those they loved and lost," Holland said. "When we stop talking about it, we risk it truly becoming just another day off from work."

She reminded attendees of the Korean War and Vietnam War, times when she said the country had not valued and honored its veterans the way they deserve.

Both Holland and Rowe also highlighted the importance of teaching the next generation of Americans to continue the country's sacred tradition of remembering and honoring its fallen.

"How a nation treats its fallen speaks to its character and directly impacts whether future generations will feel the call to defend it, should the need arise," Holland said.

A crowd of hundreds gathered at the cemetery to honor the country's veterans at the city's annual Memorial Day ceremony, some laying flowers and visiting the headstones.

Brandon Roberts, of Rome, served as a helicopter mechanic in the Marine Corps from 1991-96. Roberts, who grew up in Powder Springs, said he visits the grave of Jon Michael English every year during the ceremony.

Roberts said he grew up with English, who he called "Johnny." But, shortly after they both enlisted in the Marines, English was killed in Quantico, Virginia during a training exercise.

"This day means everything. The generation of people that have served and are serving, it's a lot easier for us to understand," Roberts said. "(English) gave the ultimate sacrifice. I know if he was alive, we'd be sitting here together at this ceremony."

Others, like Kathy Brock of Cumming, have taken Holland's advice.

Brock took her grandchildren to the cemetery on Monday to lay daisies on the graves. Last year, she took them to the Georgia National Cemetery in Canton, she said.

Brock, whose father served in the Navy, said the children lay a single daisy across the graves they choose, thank the man or woman for their service and salute before moving to the next. 

"We're just trying to introduce them to the concept of Memorial Day and service," she said. "We're working on the salute. It's a work in progress."

By the time the children are adults, Brock said, they'll be able to pass on the importance of the day to the next generation.

Follow Thomas Hartwell on Twitter at twitter.com/MDJThomas