There was an air of valiance on Monday morning about downtown Greenville as a service in recognition of Veterans Day took place in front of the World War II Memorial.
In 1962, on Armed Forces Day, the late John F. Kennedy said in an address, “Word to the Nation: Guard zealously your right to serve in the Armed Forces, for without them, there will be no other rights to guard.”
The substance of that charge, even though given on Armed Forces Day over half a century ago, bears the same conviction when it comes to the U.S. Military.
Former and current members of the U.S. Military gathered to honor and pay tribute to veterans in prayers, salutations and storytelling.
Masters of ceremony for the Veterans Day service were Commander Steve Sweet, and Vice Commander Ronnie Stewart, of the American Legion Post 32.
Vice Commander Stewart led the opening prayer and Commander Sweet proceeded with three compelling accounts of the brave and selfless acts performed by service men and women.
“Horrible, ghastly, and ghoulish — these are some of the adjectives medal of honor recipient, David Bellavia, used to describe the battlefield that he saw in Iraq,” Sweet began, “But even so, the U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Bellavia said it was also a place where he saw love — you see people doing things for each other that they would never ever do in any other circumstance. It’s a sight to see.”
In the account of Staff Sergeant Bellavia’s courageous act during the height of the Iraq war in the second battle of Fallujah, Sweet continues about how Bellavia distinguished himself by rescuing an infantry squad that was pinned down by machine gun fire while the soldiers went house to house to clear the city of insurgent strongholds.
“Bellavia’s actions during a predawn mission on November 10, 2004 made the former noncommissioned officer the Iraq’s war first living recipient of the military’s highest award for valor,” Sweet said, which is the Medal of Honor.
According to Staff Sergeant First Class, Colin Fitts, putting himself in that position is what sets Bellavia apart.
Pitts credits Bellavia’s actions in saving the lives of the Third Platoon Alpha Company that day.
Sweet added, “His mindset is common with the women and men who serve our great nation, his heroism is once in a score of millions of living veterans.”
Another highlighted account was that of Army Private First Class, Monica Lin Brown.
According to the account shared by Sweet, PFC Brown was a combat medic assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division which she was deployed to back at the province in Afghanistan.
On April 25, 2007, a roadside bomb tore through her convoy wounding five soldiers.
The account continues, “After the explosion, 19-year-old Graham ran through insurgent gunfire and used her body to shield her wounded comrades while mortars fell less than 100 yards away.
Sweet concluded Brown’s account saying, “Her bravery and actions in the remote southeastern Afghan province led her to become the first woman to earn a silver star in Afghanistan and just the second woman to do so since World War II.”
“Camaraderie, warrior ethics, and spirit decorum are all words we can use to describe what it means to be a veteran and to have served in our nation’s military,” Sweet said.
He elaborated on how they as veterans find community in each other in forums and organizations such as the American Legion and Facebook.
Sweet recalled when a time when news broke that a living Vietnam veteran had no living relatives to attend his funeral, the veteran community turned out and only a handful of people were expected to attend.
“They underestimated the power of the American Legion,” Sweet said proudly. “Three thousand people showed up to pay their respects, none of us figured it would be as big it was.”
It seemed that every service man or woman has had a unique and somewhat life changing experience during their service.
One veteran in attendance, Tommy Williams, recalled when he first got drafted to serve in the U.S. Army.
“I retired from the Greenville Police Department in 1990,” he said. “I went of to the police academy, got drafted while I was at the academy, and they deferred me,” he said.
Williams went on to share that when he finished at the academy, to his surprise, he was drafted again.
Williams was deployed to serve in the Vietnam War, right before the decision was made not to send any more soldiers to Vietnam.
“When I first went in, I was scared to death, didn’t know what a war was,” he said. “We’d never been away from home.”
As Williams described his experience in Vietnam, he exuded a demeanor of simultaneous disbelief, gratefulness and relief.
“We didn’t know what to expect, scared to death, didn’t want to be there at the time, but I went,” he said.
Reflecting on the comrades that he saw fall in battle and the lives that were lost he said, “I didn’t understand it, I still don’t understand it today.”
Williams added, “It’s hard on me now, I have a lot of problems, but I just take it one day at a time,” and on a thankful note, he said, “I’m here.”
Washington County Economic Alliance executive director, Will Coppage, who served in the Air Force for four and a half years, shared about his experience serving his country.
Coppage said he’d gotten out of the Air Force about four days after 9/11 and because of that, it was a “weird time and mixed feelings” because he knew his life was moving forward.
“When I think of being a veteran and I think of my brothers and sisters, service and sacrifice are the two main words that come up,” he said. “But what I remember are the moments of family and community and it’s a lot of great memories that made me who I am today.”
Coppage also said he didn’t just learn technical skills or about aircraft, “But also how to be a stronger person, how to love somebody that is not exactly like you, and how to give even when your body says you have nothing left. All those combined have really made me into the person that I am today.”
Also in attendance was Mayor Errick Simmons, who expressed his gratitude for the men and women who have served the country bravely.
“A life lived in service to others is a life worth living, and I’m doing it from an elected position standpoint,” Simmons said. “My true debt is owed to the veterans because freedom is not free and for us to enjoy the rights and privileges that we have in Greenville, the state of Mississippi and this country, we owe a whole lot to our veterans who gave their sacrifice, their blood sweat and tears, and some who made the ultimate sacrifice and died on the battlefield for us to really be free in this country.”
Commander Sweet said the key thing for him is making the public aware that the veterans are out here.
“We’re still serving the country, we’re still serving our cities our states,” he said. “We’re just here for the veterans and whatever we can do to make a veteran’s life better, that’s what we’re here to do.”