A crowd estimated at nearly 300 people deployed in Mount Airy Wednesday to say thanks to military veterans during an annual city program that highlighted the human sacrifices behind the words often mentioned on such occasions.
Conditions such as freedom and democracy don’t just happen, reminded Korean War veteran Robert Holder, one of three special speakers for Wednesday’s patriotic service, which lasted slightly more than an hour at the Mount Airy War Memorial near City Hall.
“It is bought at a price,” Holder continued, “the blood of thousands of men and women that has been shed around the world.”
Kelly Epperson, who has served as master of ceremonies for the annual Veterans Day program for many years, said he believes the one held Wednesday brought the largest turnout ever.
Local soldiers’ sacrifice
Holder, a retired educator who served in the Army, pointed out that America’s history is one of constant conflicts that have been waged in defense of freedom, with local military members playing a role in that.
“Surry County men and women have always volunteered to fight,” the speaker told the crowd, which included veterans and others, many of whom were dressed in red, white and blue or holding small flags. “Surry County has had its share of casualties in the fight to protect our freedom.”
This has included more than 200 local residents who have made the supreme sacrifice in U.S. wars over the past 100 years, counting World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm and Operation Enduring Freedom.
They were husbands, fathers and brothers who were lost to Surry families forever, Holder said.
William J. “Joe” Lovill — whose name is one of the more than 500 engraved on the war memorial that served as a backdrop for Wednesday’s program — is an example of that sacrifice, Holder said.
Lovill, a hero of Holder’s, was a local resident serving during the Korean War. Lovill was scheduled to be sent home, but volunteered for one last mission and was killed on a ridge trying to aid a comrade who had been wounded.
Mentioning that the Korean conflict often is known as the forgotten war, Holder said that 78 area men were deployed to fight in 1950. “Only five of us are alive today.”
Kenn Kopf, an Air Force veteran who also spoke at Wednesday’s program, said America’s military personnel always have shared one trait whether in uniform during war or peace.
That is the willingness to risk their lives at any moment.
“You did not do it for fame and fortune, obviously,” Kopf said of the mindset of himself and others who decided to serve, “just a simple love of freedom.”
Time after time since 1776, America’s armed forces have answered the call when needed, and the fundamentals of democracy and liberty the nation enjoys today are due to them, Kopf told Wednesday’s gathering, not presidents or members of Congress.
“We only have freedom because we have eternal vigilance.”
While much of Wednesday’s service focused on the contributions of past military personnel, the Air Force veteran says the country also should be proud of those now stationed in hot spots around the globe.
The average age of today’s military members is 20.5, Kopf said of people who are high school graduates and have better training, equipment and leadership than any troops of any country in history.
Kopf said that despite their service, many veterans have not gotten the medical and other care they deserve, referring to much-publicized problems with Veterans Affairs facilities and other difficulties.
He said one veteran told him that it took 40 years to receive his disability rating, which Kopf described as inexcusable.
“Congress needs to take action and solve this problem,” he said.
But something everyone can do for veterans is just thank them for their service, the speaker said of a small gesture that means a lot.
Kopf said some people spend a lot of time wondering if their lives have made a difference in the world, but “veterans never wonder — they know they have.”
And the United States is a safer and better place as a result, said Mark Barr, commander of the group Sons of the American Legion, who delivered Wednesday’s invocation.
Also speaking at Wednesday’s Veterans Day event was Mark Alderman, an official of the Mount Airy Elks Lodge.
Alderman said a primary mission of the Elks organization is to remember and honor veterans through various events and activities.
Another speaker was Steve Yokeley, a city commissioner and Mount Airy’s mayor pro tem, who read a special Veterans Day proclamation which urged citizens to appropriately remember the contributions of those who have served.
Other municipal officials, including members of the board of commissioners and city manager, also attended Wednesday’s event.
The program further featured the traditional laying of a wreath at the monument, by Yokeley, Holder, Kopf and Alderman.
A rifle volley salute and the playing of “Taps” by the VFW Memorial Honor Guards of local Post 2019 and Pilot Mountain Post 9436 concluded the event.
Local students additionally were a major part of the occasion, including the North Surry High School Air Force Junior ROTC, a small group of which sang a medley of patriotic songs associated with U.S. wars such as “Over There” from World War I.
North Surry JROTC members also led flag-raising and flag-folding ceremonies Wednesday, the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem.
As her fellow cadets folded a large American flag, one of the students told the crowd that respect for that banner might not be as great as in the past. But everyone should remember that it represents the many efforts of U.S. veterans, the student reminded.
“When you salute (the flag), you are actually saluting them.”
Cadet Brenely Palacios, the winner of a “What is Veterans Day?” essay contest held among members of her unit, detailed the story of Medal of Honor winner Army Pfc. Sammy Davis. He served courageously in Vietnam by saving three fellow soldiers despite being wounded himself.
North Surry students also took part in a Veterans Day parade held before Wednesday’s program at the war memorial, which featured members of marching bands from other local high schools playing patriotic music along the way.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.