Veterans Day is as much about future veterans as current ones, said the keynote speaker at Johnston County’s Veterans Day observance on last Monday.
The Johnston County school system held its annual Veterans Day ceremony in the Smithfield-Selma High School gym. Veterans, their families, supporters and uniformed Junior ROTC students from around the county packed the stands.
Ilario Pantano, director of the N.C. Division of Veterans Affairs, gave the keynote speech. He often addressed the students running the event and sitting in the stands.
“I’m here not for these old war horses; I’m here for these young kids,” Pantano said. “They’re the future defenders of our nation. We have had an all-volunteer military since 1973. They will make a decision to protect you and your families, or not, based on how they see we as a society treat our veterans.”
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Pantano also talked about Gov. Pat McCrory’s goal of making North Carolina the most veteran-friendly state in the country, a goal he shares.
“That’s all what you deserve,” Pantano said. “You earned it.”
Pantano asked veterans to talk to students after the ceremony.
“I encourage all of you men and women who have worn the cloth to take the time to shepherd these young men and women today, to share your stories – without the profanity, if you can do that; I know it’s hard,” he said as the crowd laughed. “But to share your stories, because this young generation is going to make a very important decision for us.”
The influence of veterans on society is waning, Pantano said.
“Today, the population of veterans in America is about 22 million,” he said. “In about 30 years, the population of veterans in America is going to be 11 million, one half, while the population of our country will grow by probably another 100 million.
“Do you see over time the voice of the veterans is slowly going out?”
The military has been the victim of its own success, Pantano said.
“We’ve been so good at keeping the wolf from the door that now we have generations of young people that think there’s always been a Walmart on the corner; it’s always been air conditioned; there’s always been 100 flavors of soda at Moe’s,” he said. “See, but it wasn’t always that way. There were times when we had our back to the wall.”
To illustrate that point, he read the prayer President Franklin Roosevelt gave on the eve of D-Day.
Throughout the ceremony, an all-county band and chorus performed songs, including “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” A video showed photos of Johnston County veterans in their youth. Students placed a memorial wreath in front of the stage, and two trumpeters played “Taps.” Veterans stood proudly during the music for their branch of the military.
The event ended with the Junior ROTC units marching in front of the stage.
Ryan Fournier is in the Army Junior ROTC at Corinth Holders High School. He said being part of the Veterans Day event was an honor.
“To see all the veterans coming together, to know that they served in wars, that we might have the opportunity in the future to serve in wars, it’s a great honor to come together and see them all,” he said.
Fournier, who plans to join the military, said he felt a connection between himself and the veterans.
“It’s just a great feeling,” he said. “It definitely takes a piece out of your heart and puts some weights on your shoulders.”
Ken Barker of Clayton, 65, served in the U.S. Marine Corps. He said the Veterans Day observance is getting bigger and better every year. And seeing the students who take part in the event gives him hope for the future.
“Looking at today’s youth, if you have any problems with where they were going, it makes you feel a whole lot better,” Baker said. “These kids show promise.”