By Carl Nolte
On a Veterans Day tinged with remembered glory and sadness, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi helped dedicate a stunningly beautiful scenic overlook at the Presidio of San Francisco.
The site, on the edge of a forest of eucalyptus, overlooks the Presidio National Cemetery, the bay, the Golden Gate and the Marin Headlands.
'This beautiful place is a place to reflect, remember and honor the deeds of these soldiers,' Pelosi said. 'We can look out and see the Golden Gate Bridge, where they came home from the Pacific theater, and the cemetery where they were laid to rest.'
Pelosi, D-San Francisco, played a major role in converting the Presidio from an Army post to a national park. In Congress she also helped pass a number of bills to help veterans.
'We want every day to be Veterans Day,' she said.
Other speakers at Wednesday's ceremony praised the beauty and significance of the site, which is located on a hill between a small housing area called Washington Heights and the cemetery.
'There are 33,000 veterans and their families buried here,' said decorated war veteran Phil Gioia, one of the speakers. 'There are 35 recipients of the Medal of Honor. There are veterans of almost every war, police action, punitive expedition. They served at Antietam, Little Big Horn, the Great Wall of China, the Philippines, Mexico, Cuba, France, Korea and Vietnam.
'They had two principles in common: duty and sacrifice.'
Gioia himself served 10 years in the Army, including a stint at the Presidio. He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War and received two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
Robert Hass, former poet laureate of the United States, read from 'The Young Dead Soldiers' a poem by Archibald MacLeish, who gave voice to the dead:
'They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say: We have died. Remember us.'
The words are carved on a low wall around the overlook.
Even the weather, a gray morning with a touch of November chill, played a role in the somber nature of the ceremony. There was a moment of silence at the end, then an Army officer played taps, the mournful sound of the bugle drifting through the trees that overlook the thousands of graves.
The overlook was made possible by a gift of $1 million from T. Robert and Katherine Burke, who said they were impressed by the serenity of the site.
Until the overlook was built, the hill on the south end of the National Cemetery was an obscure corner of the Presidio forest choked in underbrush with a dirt trail nearby. Now it is a small gem, an off-the-beaten path surprise. Even old soldiers who had spent years at the Presidio had never been there before.
'It really is a pretty spot,' said Pat Kaye, who works for the Presidio Trust, which now runs the former military post. Kaye said the new site is one of eight scenic overlooks being built in the Presidio; most will be linked by hiking and biking trails.
A few bicycle riders and walkers turned up at Wednesday's ceremonies, apparently startled to see Army officers in dress blues and camouflage uniforms talking to the speaker of the House of Representatives in what they have come to think of as a park.
But for retired Maj. Gen. Robert Menist, the park is almost home. His father, also a major general, commanded the 91st Reserve Division at the Presidio for many years. Before him, a great-uncle - an Army surgeon - was stationed at the Presidio, starting in 1899.