HOWELL -- With heads bowed and hands clasped, they stood around a yellow patch of grass marking the grave of Sgt. Rocky Payne. Father with son. Uncle with niece. Granddaughter with grandmother. So on went the circle.
    Payne's death, not yet three months ago in Iraq, made this Memorial Day the first his kin would observe as a "Gold Star" family.
    It is a distinction -- so-called for the simple banners often hung in the windows of homes bereaved by war -- they share with the families of nearly 1,000 other American service members killed since last Memorial Day. A greater toll in a similar period has not been counted since 1971 -- the last full year in which American troops were involved in the Vietnam War.
    As such, Dennis Payne recognizes his grief is not his alone.
    "I have to remind myself there are so many other parents doing exactly what we are doing today," Payne says after returning from his son's grave to his small farmhouse, where he and his wife raised five boys in a sparsely populated and windswept northern Utah valley.
    The wrinkles that fan out from the corner of Payne's eyes deepen as he speaks of his dead son, killed March 16 when a roadside bomb was detonated next to the Humvee in which he was riding as a gunner. Fellow soldiers rushed to the badly injured soldier's aid, but they could not save him.
    "It gets easier as the weeks go by," Payne says, "but right now I still get tears in my eyes when something about him is brought up."
    Similarly, Payne figures the annual parade of occasions such as his son's birthday -- which the family gathered to celebrate last week -- will become easier with time. For now, he is content to use such events to celebrate Rocky's life -- and embrace the family members who remain.
    As Payne speaks, a blond 4-year-old -- his grandson, Jake -- attempts to dart by. Payne reaches out, grabs the boy around the waist and hoists him, laughing, into the air. The child escapes and dashes back to the table for a handful of olives.
    The treats are in a dish next to plates of ham, rolls and cake. Around the kitchen table, family members laugh and tell stories unrelated to their earlier trip to the cemetery. Family reunions recorded on video tape long ago play out on a small television set. Even on a day devoted to remembering the dead, life goes on.
    As the chatter continues, a few at a time float away from the table, wandering to a raised corner of the family room which serves as a memorial. Rocky's medals are there, as is the flag that draped his coffin, a scrapbook and even a few football trophies from his days on a local team.
    For Dennis Payne, all are symbols of a sacrifice made for a greater cause -- though he readily accepts that others may disagree. "That is," he says, "just part of democracy."
    In the weeks before Rocky -- a former Marine who had already served a tour of duty -- joined the Army, his brother tried to get him to reconsider the decision. "We argued about the politics of it all until we were both blue in the face," recalls Randy Payne, the eldest of five brothers. "Finally I accepted that he didn't care about the politics, he just wanted to do something for people who couldn't do it for themselves. And I could respect that."
    Randy Payne still laments the cost of a war he does not support, but there is no bitterness in his heart. "I believe that things happen for a reason," he says.
    Memorial Day, he reasons, is not about politics but people. This is Rocky's day -- and there are so many more to come.