While their hair might be a bit grayer and their figures not as svelte, Wilson County's veterans walked in the Veterans Day parade Sunday with a special spring in their step and pride shinning in their eyes.
At first it looked as though there would be a light turn out for the event as the parade kicked off with only a handful of people on the Lebanon Square.
But as the parade went down East Main Street, people started walking in from all directions to converge in front of the courthouse for the ceremony. Veterans were well represented in the crowd, among them were Vietnam Veteran Jerry Powers who assisted World War II Veteran Dave Bishop. As the crowd rose for the Star Spangled Banner, the seated Bishop turned to Powers and said "help me up." Powers obliged and helped him stand to pay his respects.
Also at the ceremony was Alexis Fuentes Sr., carrying a framed photo of his son, U.S. Marine Alexis Fuentes Jr. who died serving his country in 2011.
The crowd was filled with veterans young and old as Ret. Lt. Col Jim Henderson opened the ceremony describing a trip to the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C.
"We didn't see the secretary of defense, and we didn't try to after we saw the two big burly U.S. Marines," he told the crowd, then he quoted Isaiah 6:8 – which he said summed up the valor of veterans:
"I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me."
Henderson reminded the crowd that Americans are still fighting and dying in far-away lands.
"We're still paying, bodies are still coming out of Afghanistan," he said. "You did your job, then you came home and lived your lives and your sons, daughters and grandchildren followed in your footsteps."
He introduced one of the Gold Star Mothers present at the ceremony, Glenola Ryker.
"My son was killed in Vietnam," she said. "To honor all who have sacrificed their lives. God bless every Gold Star Mother, wherever she is."
Henderson then introduced the two grand marshals of the parade and two of Wilson County's World War II veterans – Army Air Corps 1st Lt. George James, of Statesville, and Chief Petty Officer Donald Gilbert. Henderson said both were in their original uniforms and rode in authentic World War II jeeps in the parade.
James, who was honored at the Watertown High School 100th reunion celebration in the spring, was born in 1917, enlisted in July 1941 and flew B-25 bombers in the war.
"He dedicated his life to ensure freedom for all American," Henderson said of James.
He also recognized Gilbert who volunteered for the Navy before Pearl Harbor.
"He flew many combat missions against the Japanese," Henderson said of Gilbert. "His unit dealt many blows against enemy submarines in the South Pacific."
He then turned to the crowd to show their appreciation for these members of the Greatest Generation.
"Thank them for what they've done," Henderson said as the crowd gave the pair a rousing ovation.
He then introduced the speaker for the ceremony, Navy Capt. John Bentley, a fighter pilot who flew combat missions during the Vietnam War and has 370 carrier landings under his belt. Bentley gave the principal address.
"John wreaked a bit of havoc on the North Vietnamese," Henderson said. "I bet Ho Chi Minh didn't like you."
Bentley looked at the audience and began to speak.
"I'm an average person," he said. "When I was 7-years-old I determined that I wanted to be a pilot. Now, I'm standing among the people I had the privilege to serve for. This is the heartland of who we are. We always do our part by voting and supporting our troops."
He said when "the war drum sounded" Americans from "Maine, New York City, from the prairies of the West and the hills of Tennessee" answered the call.
"They come from all places to forge a military force like no other and became a band of brothers."
Gilbert related the story of Dakota L. Meyer, the U.S. Marine veteran of the War in Afghanistan, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Battle of Ganjgal in 2009, in Kunar Province, Afghanistan. After he was ordered to stand down, Meyer, a Kentuckian, who "plunged back into battle not once, but
four times" to rescue his fellow Marines.
"He had a code of honor to never leave anyone behind," Gilbert said adding that once Meyer was back on the farm in Kentucky and was informed by the Marine Corps that he was going to receive the Medal of Honor he asked, "'What for?'"
The crowd laughed as Gilbert related how Meyer kept refusing the medal until finally he received a call from the president of the United States and agreed to accept the medal, the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor.
Gilbert looked out over the crowd starred with veterans once again.
"They have underwritten our freedom with their service," he said, adding that their service came at a price. All veterans have given something of themselves for our freedom, and some gave lives. We are the living beneficiaries of their sacrifice."
Gilbert charged the crowd with remembering the families of veterans and their sacrifices as they cared for the wounded and mourned the dead.
"When the battlefields are silent, remember the price their families pay," he said. "Among the homeless, one in four are veterans. This is hardly the thanks of a grateful nation."
He, too, turned to the Bible to express his feelings and end his speech. He quoted John 15:30.
"Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."
Henderson went to the microphone and made a joke about Gilbert.
"Can you believe it? He was a combat pilot, and he told me before his speech that he was nervous," he said.
The ceremony ended with veterans and Ryker laying a wreath at the Wilson County War Memorial, and a member of the Watertown High School Band played taps as the crowd stood at attention.
"This monument holds 200 names of Wilson County residents killed in various wars," Henderson said.
Speaking after the ceremony, Bernie Ash, who heads the Wilson County Veteran's Service Office, said it was one of he largest crowds the ceremony has ever seen.
Staff writer Mary Hinds may be reached at 615-444-3952, ext. 45 or firstname.lastname@example.org.