Dale Badgett, one of the speakers at Mount Airy’s annual Veterans Day gathering on Friday, made one thing clear right away.
“Veterans Day is first and foremost a celebration of our veterans,” said Badgett, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force who is president of the Surry County Veterans Council.
Unlike Memorial Day, held in late May to honor service personnel who’ve died or been killed in the line of duty, Veterans Day is an observance to appreciate the living for making the U.S. what it is today, Badgett and other speakers stressed.
They were addressing an attentive audience of hundreds of people who assembled for the annual program held near the Mount Airy War Memorial.
Many of those attending were veterans who wore VFW, American Legion and other caps or held small flags. All seats in front of the speakers’ podium were filled, requiring other attendees to stand while watching the proceedings.
“Without you guys,” Surry County Commissioner Van Tucker said to the veterans in the crowd, “we would not be able to assemble here today and have all the freedoms that we do.”
About 4,500 veterans now live in Surry, according to another speaker who also is a member of the county Board of Commissioners, Larry Johnson. He was among a number of local elected officials in attendance.
“That would be the second-biggest town in Surry County if y’all decided to come together,” Johnson added in putting their numbers into perspective.
Friday’s Veterans Day activities began with a parade, which attracted throngs who lined North Main Street to watch the procession pass through.
It included local high school marching bands, which played songs such as “America,” along with members of military organizations and even an Elks Lodge motorcycle group whose members displayed flags as their Harley-Davidsons roared through the central business district.
Patriotic floats also were part of the parade, including one of a somber nature that paid homage to combat veterans.
The procession further featured members of the Air Force Junior ROTC from North Surry High School, who played a big role in activities during the program at the city war memorial.
This included the raising of the flag and a flag-folding ceremony, leading the Pledge of Allegiance and four members performing a medley of songs associated with each branch of the service, such as “The Halls of Montezuma” (the U.S. Marines) and “Anchors Aweigh” (the Navy).
Local youth further played a big role in Friday’s patriotic event with Nicole Marie McMillan’s singing of the national anthem and, later in the program, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” an iconic tune made famous by The Andrews Sisters during World War II.
High cost of freedom
Though Friday’s event celebrated the ranks of present or former military members living in this and other communities across the U.S., the audience was reminded that their service has not come without sacrifices.
“Freedom’s not easy — it’s hard to come by,” said Johnson, the county commissioner.
That was echoed by Mount Airy Mayor David Rowe in his remarks during the program.
The mayor admitted that he tended to take the role of military members for granted — “until I saw my son come home from Afghanistan.”
In conjunction with that, Rowe said he witnessed returning fathers and mothers in the military lay eyes on their children for the first time, and this made quite an impression on him.
“We fail to realize that — we don’t really appreciate what you have done for us,” Rowe said of veterans and what serving overseas really means. “Words to express how we feel today escape me.”
Such service has made the community, state and nation stronger, “and helped advance the cause of freedom worldwide,” the mayor said.
“How blessed we are.”
A common theme among Friday’s speakers is that the world has always been a dangerous place, requiring military actions by nations such as the United States.
Kenn Kopf, an Air Force veteran who addressed the gathering, said the role of a military member has been likened to writing a blank check to the government covering what he or she will give — “up to and including my life.”
“This obligation was undertaken by generations here today and must continue to be passed down to the next,” Kopf said, which can be guaranteed only by veterans’ sacrifices.
“Freedom is fragile — it can be taken away overnight.”
Veterans haven’t always been as appreciated as they are today, Kopf continued, including during the Vietnam War when protests were rampant.
“But to those who protest, you owe that right to a veteran,” he said.
And today the picture isn’t exactly rosy for ex-service members, the Air Force vet reminded.
Twenty veterans commit suicide each day, Kopf said, citing “appalling statistics” from Veterans Affairs officials, and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) “is a crisis and growing.”
Also, 300,000 veterans have died while awaiting medical treatment, and he knows of someone waiting 40 years to receive his disability rating.
“That’s unacceptable,” Kopf added.
“With all our faults, we are still the strongest nation on the face of the Earth.”
While military personnel tend to be associated with fighting, Badgett, the Surry Veterans Council president, said most consider their mission to be achieving world peace.
And when they do fight, they aren’t so much concerned with the foe in front of them “but those behind you (at home) that you love,” Badgett said.
“To our veterans, a simple heart-felt ‘thank you’ does not say enough,” Kopf remarked while noting that many people wonder if their lives have made a difference in this world.
“But veterans don’t have that problem — they know they did.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.