Veterans Day was known as Armistice Day, and a speaker at Thursday’s event in Mount Airy suggested another apt name for the holiday that honors members of the US military:
It should be called ‘Gratefulness Day,’ which made clear that everyone in America owes a great debt to those who have served since the Revolutionary War began nearly 250 years ago, said Tim Watson, the attorney general for Surrey and Stokes.
Referring to the many sacrifices including the ultimate ones, Watson added, “While we can never repay this debt, we can say ‘thank you’.”
And that’s exactly what Watson and other members of the community at large did on Thursday as Mount Airy held a full Veterans Day celebration after holiday activities were drastically curtailed last year due to the pandemic.
The 2021 edition of the holiday kicked off Thursday morning with a downtown parade and culminated in a colorful patriotic program and festival at the Mount Aire War Memorial attended by an estimated crowd of more than 200.
It began at 11 a.m., marking the time of the signing of the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918.
Keep freedom alive
Several former service members were in the audience Thursday, based on a show of hands to identify these individuals, and another highlight was the presence of local students – who were unable to attend in 2020 due to COVID restrictions.
They included the ROTC unit at North Surry High School Small Air and Greyhound Sounds chorale group. These young men were joined by a large number of Scouts in uniform who carried flags at the War Memorial and marched alongside the marching teams of Mount Airy and North Surry High Schools.
While many aspects of society came together at Veterans Day activities Thursday, there was a clear common link: the importance of patriotism embodied by members of the military.
Another speaker Thursday — Mark Marion, chair of the Surrey County Board of Commissioners — said that because of their service over the years, Americans can enjoy the freedom and pride of who they are, and he believes this includes an appreciation for science.
“I carried this flag around the world,” Marion told the veterans in attendance. He added that everyone else should feel free to do so, along with other patriotic gestures.
“We will sing the national anthem before all the football matches,” Marion said of one such practice in Surrey County. “Why? Because you are a veteran, you said we can.”
County District Attorney Watson, who is not a veteran but wore a uniform on Thursday — an adult Scout leader’s uniform — continued the topic as he took the speakers’ stand just after Marion.
“We must never forget the importance of veterans to this country,” he commented. “To all of these veterans here today, thank you for all you have done for us.”
Watson noted that this commitment dates back to the mid-1870s, when farmers and other simple people in the then British colonies took up arms as citizen soldiers against the world’s largest military force for American independence.
Watson asserted that this love of freedom is what separates the United States from the rest of the world, and that the military has kept it alive through many conflicts. “I’ve fought that war many times,” he said.
“Your service was and is necessary,” Watson said in comments to the veterans, “otherwise we might at least speak with a British accent and abstain from the Queen.”
“We can never thank them enough for their courageous love and sacrifice,” Surrey County Sheriff Steve Hyatt said of the veterans when delivering a prayer of service Thursday.
Veterans deserve more
Another speaker on the program — Joe Zalesik, a member of the Mount Air Board of Commissioners — said the United States has 19 million veterans, citing census figures.
However, not all of those who served were given the respect they deserved, Zalesik continued, referring specifically to the Vietnam War veterans who were treated with disdain upon their return.
The city commissioner said he always thanks military personnel for their service, but is taking extra action with those who fought in Vietnam. They are welcomed back home, because they did not receive such a greeting after returning for the first time.
Zalesik also noted that while giving thanks and holding annual ceremonies are important, ex-military personnel also need more attention given the problems many of them face.
This includes dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), homelessness, high suicide rates and difficulties accessing health care.
Zalesik, whose remarks were met with applause from the audience, said the veteran should be able to go to any medical facility and get the treatment he needs.
“We really need to step it up,” he noted in relation to doing more for former service members.
Family plays a role
In addition to remembering the sacrifices of the military personnel themselves, the hardships their family members faced on Thursday were cited.
Those who serve leave behind wives, fathers, or mothers who must contend with trials and tribulations at home.
“So I consider you families, I’m also a veteran,” Marion said to whomever fits this profile, and the comment was greeted with applause.
“Sometimes I think their service is the hardest,” Watson said as he turned to the microphone as he pointed to the memorial behind him containing the names of the war dead in Surrey County.
“If you don’t believe it, ask someone who has a loved one listed on that wall over there,” he commented.
“The greatest appreciation we can give them is to never forget their sacrifice,” Watson said. “I hope and pray that we never forget that freedom does not come for free.”
The mayor of Mount Airy, Ron Neiland, read the city’s Veterans Day proclamation Thursday that notes the role of “outstanding individuals” who have kept this nation free while advancing the cause of freedom around the world.
The ad also notes their “willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good,” with Niland – whose late father was in the military – making a personal note.
“God bless veterans – thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me, my family, and my family around the world.”
Tom Joyce can be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.