Veterans Day in Mount Airy was a time not only to thank those who have served, but to highlight the fact that former military members also can face life-and-death struggles as civilians.
“If there’s a homeless veteran here, we don’t have any place for them to go,” Disabled American Veterans Treasurer Mike Cassell said of one local example Wednesday while speaking at a holiday program before an audience including ex-service personnel.
Another speaker for the event held in the bingo hall at Veterans Memorial Park — after morning showers forced it inside from an outdoors venue initially planned — pointed out that the war wounds don’t always include loss of life or limbs. There’s also those inflicted on one’s mental state, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), said Dale Badgett, a U.S. Air Force retiree.
Badgett told those assembled that the nation is losing veterans to suicide at the rate of 22 per day, including someone he knows who recently chose that route. The speaker additionally mentioned how former service members in Surry County and elsewhere are dying at alarming rates overall, especially older individuals from the World War II era.
“I want us to recognize we’re losing them every day,” Badgett commented.
“God bless our veterans”
Along with citing some of the well-documented problems veterans face once completing their service, Wednesday was a day for celebrating their contributions and expressing thanks.
There had been a strong possibility that an annual Veterans Day program wouldn’t even be held in Mount Airy this year, due to coronavirus-related issues.
“It seems like we’ve battled a lot of things just to be here,” said Kelly Epperson, a local radio station owner who served as master of ceremonies for the event, mentioning the coronavirus specifically.
“But the main thing is, we’re here.”
The city Veterans Day program, which was attended last year by at least 200 people, usually is staged at the Mount Airy War Memorial on the corner of South Main and Rockford streets.
COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings precluded such a scenario this year, and an alternate plan to move the program to Blackmon Amphitheater was abandoned for the same reasons.
This prompted organizers to schedule it outside at Veterans Memorial Park, but rainy weather led to the eventual venue in a building normally hosting meetings and bingo games.
“We’d love to be having a parade,” Badgett, a regular speaker for the holiday program, said of a companion attraction of the Veterans Day program which local military organizations and high school band members fill with color and pageantry.
Badgett also said he wished everyone could be sitting on Main Street Wednesday. “But it was just not meant to be this year.”
Another Veterans Day fixture missing in action was a presence by North Surry High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC unit and Greyhound Sounds chorale group. They couldn’t attend because of a COVID-related ban on school field trips.
The end result was about 40 people gathering inside the room, social distancing and wearing face masks.
However, all that did not diminish the genuine sense of appreciation and honor exhibited by a slate of speakers.
“Veterans who have served our country deserve much respect,” Epperson said, reminding that gatherings such as Wednesday’s program and even church services are possible as a result.
“A lot of places in the world, you can’t do that,” Badgett agreed during his time at the podium.
Epperson intertwined personal comments with passages from an essay he ran across, written by a high school student in Kansas whose grandfather was a Korean War soldier, in which the youth focused on what veterans mean to him.
“They lead a disciplined life so we don’t have to,” Epperson related.
“They’re modest — they don’t look for publicity,” he continued. “Veterans don’t ask for much — they at least deserve our gratitude.”
The city government was represented at Wednesday’s event by Commissioner Ron Niland, who is serving as Mount Airy’s mayor pro tem due to the recent resignation of David Rowe.
Niland read a customary city proclamation honoring Veterans Day, which referred to how America’s military personnel have kept this country free and advanced the cause of freedom worldwide. It further acknowledged “their willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.”
Niland also talked from the heart.
“This is my first Veterans Day without my dad,” he said, explaining that the elder Niland had served during the Korean War and wore his Veterans of Foreign Wars hat proudly. Francis “Frank” Niland died in July at age 93.
“God bless our veterans,” his son said after reading the proclamation, offering remarks directed toward them:
“Thank you so much for all you have done for me and my family and families around the world.”
Needs are there
Wednesday’s program made it clear that along with words of praise, veterans need more.
That includes jobs once their time in the military ends, Badgett said.
The same line of thought was continued by Cassell, the Disabled American Veterans representative who was among multiple speakers outlining the services their organizations provide. Others included the American Legion and Marine Corps League.
Cassell, whose DAV group helps ex-military members tap into various assistance programs, indicated that a good number of vets aren’t aware of all those available.
For example, funding is offered for remodeling bathrooms of persons who are disabled to make them accessible to wheelchairs and walkers.
“Every veteran ought to help other veterans get what they deserve,” Cassell urged.
And just saying “thank you” also can go a long way, according to Badgett.
“It never gets old.”