Roughly 16 years ago in Mariposa County, the students of Coulterville Greeley School planted a sugar maple and placed a monument along the edge of the playground.
The tree and plaque help the community remember Marine Lance Cpl. Thomas A. Jenkins Jr., who attended elementary school there in the 1980s.
They wanted to remember one of their own who became the first military member from Central California and among the first from the United States to die in the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
Only a few feet tall in 1992, the maple now is an eye-catching canopy that protects the children from the sun, just as Jenkins sought to protect their freedoms when he joined the Marines.
He died Jan. 29, 1991, when an Air Force anti-tank plane fired on an Iraqi vehicle but hit Jenkins' armored car instead.
Likewise, Airman 1st Class Justin Wood's name graces the granite memorial in front of the Stanislaus County Courthouse in downtown Modesto. Wood died in 1996, when a bomb exploded at the Khobar Towers
U.S. military housing complex in Saudi Arabia, killing 19.
His is among the dozen names under the heading "Gulf War," even though he died between the two U.S.-Iraqi conflicts.
This Memorial Day, many who take time to honor our war dead likely will do so with World War II and the ongoing Iraq war in mind. Memorial Day, though, is supposed to honor all Americans who have died in service, including the 405,000 who lost their lives during World War II.
Ken Burns' PBS series "The War" reemphasized the magnitude of World War II, with an urgency based upon the fact that Americans who survived it are now dying off at a rate of more than 1,100 per day.
Likewise, the Iraq war is closing in on 4,100 American deaths in a war brought home by so many military funerals for valley soldiers.
But military deaths are deaths, no matter the size and scope of the conflict. Which is why it's important to remember people such as Jenkins and Wood, who died under circumstances overshadowed by wars before and since.
It's equally important to remember the tens of thousands who died in Korea and Vietnam, or the 17 killed in the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the 19 killed in Grenada in 1983, the 40 who died in Panama in 1989 or the 43 who died in Somalia.
Ultimately, it's not the war that counts. The service and sacrifice matter most.
In June 1996, a truck loaded with explosives slammed into the Khobar Towers, killing Downey High grad Wood and 18 other airmen. The Persian Gulf war supposedly had ended five years earlier. But the no-fly zone remained in effect, and the 20-year-old airman flew 34 search-and-rescue missions, helping to save 10 lives.
"We were at war, but we weren't at war," said his father, Richard Wood of Modesto.
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, U.S. forces pursued al-Qaida and leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before invading Iraq in March 2003.
The Khobar Towers attacks were all but forgotten by everyone except those who endured the losses -- families such as Wood's.
"We're involved with some Gold Star stuff," said Richard Wood, referring to the organization of parents whose children have died in the military. "But I feel like an outsider because of everything that's happened since 2002 (the invasion of Afghanistan and the Iraq war)."
The Woods also can feel a bit out of place, he said, when they visit Justin's grave at
San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery in Santa Nella, where many World War II, Korea and Vietnam War veterans rest.
"People are sometimes surprised," Richard Wood said. "They'll say, 'Which war was your dad in?' We'll say, 'We're in here for our son.' They don't understand."
More than 17 years after Thomas Jenkins Jr.'s death, his father's heart still aches.
"(Memorial Day is) a celebration," Jenkins Sr. said. "But the truth is, it takes a long time to get over it. There's a horrible wound inside. There's emptiness and loss."
The death of his wife, Joyce, in an automobile accident in 1996 compounded his pain. He remarried a few years later. Daughter Jamie Bertram, her husband and their two children have lifted his spirits, but losing Thomas Jr. is something he'll never get over.
"Until (the grandchildren) came, my life was empty," Jenkins Sr. said. "How would anybody feel when your only son is gone?"
Whenever he drives by the elementary school, he can't help but notice the maple tree -- how much it's grown. He occasionally visits the plaque on the school grounds, as well as his son's grave in the small family plot at Greeley Hill Cemetery.
To those who didn't know Thomas Jr., he is a name on a plaque and a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
Those who knew him, such as his father, remember the person rather than an image.
"I still see that smile, that grin on his face," Jenkins Sr. said. "He was happy-go-lucky -- an easy-to-get-to-know person, a caring person. I still feel that warmth.
"There are so many facets to the equation."
So many wars, so much death.
Jenkins Jr.'s aunt, Jean Nebel of Coulterville, said none of those killed is more important than the others.
"Nobody should ever be forgotten," she said, "no matter which war or conflict they were in."
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2383.