U.S. Rep. David Rouzer said this to veterans gathered Nov. 11 in the Smithfield-Selma High School gym for the county’s annual Veterans Day observance: “We owe you just a tremendous, tremendous debt of gratitude.
In chairs on the gym floor at SSS were scores of Johnston County veterans. Looking on were hundreds of people who came to show their appreciation. They crowded the gym’s bleachers until they were nearly standing room only.
As the observance began, Junior ROTC cadets from high schools across Johnston marched in. A giant U.S. Flag hung on a far wall. A slideshow played on a large screen. Students played music and sang.
But the focus was on the veterans sitting on the court. In row after row of chairs were men and women who, at one time or another, signed their lives over to their country, said Junior ROTC Cadet Lt. Linda Rivera, a student at SSS.
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The veterans were as diverse as their branches of service. Some wore jeans, boots and patched leather jackets. Others donned coats and ties. Many wore their service hats adorned with shining medals and bold patches – the emblems of their service. Some sat in wheelchairs, needing help to stand for the National Anthem. But they stood.
The oldest veterans were called on by name and received standing ovations while they waved or saluted the crowd in return.
Students performed patriotic songs, including “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful.” The event honored living veterans and those already passed, prisoners of war and those missing in action. A memorial wreath was placed in front of the stage, and a chair was left empty.
Veterans and public officials spoke during the event, some taking turns cracking jokes about other branches of the service.
“I would talk fast … but there’s folks here from the Air Force, so I guess I’ll go slow,” joked keynote speaker Tony Braswell, a U.S. Army veteran of the Vietnam War and chairman of the Johnston County Board of Commissioners.
Beyond the lighthearted jabs he took at himself and his fellow veterans, Braswell dedicated his speech to more serious topics, including criticism of unpatriotic behavior.
“Kneeling during the playing of the National Anthem is not the right place, nor is it an appropriate thing to do,” Braswell said to loud applause, cheers and a fews amens from the audience.
“ ‘I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America,’ ” Braswell quoted. “If we do not pledge allegiance to the United States of America, then to whom do we pledge allegiance to? This … has drifted over to others, from high school players, peewee football teams and even band members from a local university. How did we get to this place in America?”
Johnston County Schools Superintendent Ross Renfrow, who spoke a while after Braswell, made a promise to those gathered – so long as he remains superintendent, Johnston schools will honor the pledge and the flag.
Braswell spent a large portion of his speech criticizing veteran care in the United States, including high suicide rates, long wait times for appointments, lack of access to specialized care and accessibility to certain drugs. He appealed to his listeners to contact their federal lawmakers to push for change.
“Both men and women veterans are still committing suicide in this country because of (post-traumatic stress disorder),” Braswell said. “We have way too many homeless veterans living on the streets.”
Braswell also touched on divisiveness in the United States. “The racial divide in some places has not advanced very far since 1968,” he said. “We as soldiers learned to trust our partners. We did not care what their race or religion was. The only thing we cared about was we knew in their hearts that they had our backs.”
The event, organized and put on largely by students at Johnston high schools, “is what Johnston County public schools is all about,” Renfrow said before thanking each school by name to loud applause.
Renfrow said the event grows every year, but also shrinks as veterans pass.
“Johnston County Public Schools would like to thank all of our veterans and their families for the great sacrifices they have made so we can all be here today to enjoy the freedom that comes with being a citizen of the United States of America,” Renfrow said. “We need to invest in those veterans affairs and services to accommodate those who have lost loved ones or brothers in arms.”
County Commissioner Ted Godwin offered closing remarks, telling a story about his time in the service.
“Over 40 years ago, I spent a goodly portion of several years with a close associate –– an 88-millimeter mortar. Because of that, I don’t hear well out of this ear,” he said, pointing. “But that is an insignificant inconvenience compared to some of the things that the veterans are dealing with today. I ask that each of you look for opportunities to render service to your fellow man, your fellow veteran.”
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett