Showers from a tropical depression wiped out the traditional parade but didn't stop Beaufort County's annual celebration Wednesday of its nearly 17,000 veterans.
Steady rain from the weakened remnants of Tropical Storm Ida forced more than 200 uniformed sailors, Marines and other local veterans into the gym at the Charles Lind Brown Activity Center on Hamar Street for the county's Veterans Day ceremony. Organizers, who a day earlier canceled the Veterans Day parade because of the forecast, moved the ceremony from Beaufort National Cemetery into the gymnasium.
"This is the first time I can remember that weather has moved us here, but my staff and the staff from Beaufort National Cemetery really pulled it off," said Edward Ray, a retired Air Force master sergeant and the county's director of veterans affairs.
Wednesday's ceremony recognized the service and sacrifice of veterans, who Beaufort City Councilwoman Donnie Beer said "wrote a blank check payable to the United States for an amount up to and including" their lives.
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Beaufort County is home to nearly 17,000 of South Carolina's 420,971 living veterans, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
State Rep. Kenneth Hodges, D-Green Pond, said South Carolinians' service in defending the nation should not be overlooked.
"Throughout our nation's history, men and women from South Carolina left the comforts of the familiar to defend our freedoms and our way of life," Hodges said. "All gave some and some gave all."
The persistence of county and cemetery staff to host Wednesday's ceremony in spite of the weather speaks to the community's support of its active-duty and retired Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen, said Capt. Mark Bernier, commanding officer of Naval Hospital Beaufort.
"We are very fortunate to be stationed in a location that values and supports the military," Bernier said. "Whenever I welcome a sailor to our base, I tell them that this is a military town, and I tell them how lucky they are to be stationed here."
The holiday was first observed in November 1919, when President Woodrow Wilson created Armistice Day to commemorate the Nov. 11,1918, signing of the treaty that ended World War I. Armistice Day became a legal holiday in 1938, and Congress changed its name to Veterans Day in 1954 to honor all veterans of all wars.
Since then, the nation has paused on Nov. 11 to honor those who have laid their lives on the line to defend the country and the beliefs upon which it was founded, said Ozzie Garza, the director of the VA's Dallas Regional Office of Public Affairs. Garza was the ceremony's keynote speaker.
"Our veterans and service members are our greatest national treasure," Garza said. "They serve by choice, a choice based on a heartfelt commitment to our democratic ideals. America has always depended on its people, on citizen soldiers to defend our freedoms and way of life."
IN SUN CITY
They filed into the auditorium Wednesday wearing navy caps with gold insignia to signify their membership in the Sun City Veterans Association as they prepared to honor fellow veterans.
A sense of history unified the Veterans Day celebration at Sun City Hilton Head, as veterans association director Tom Schneck and the keynote speaker, retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Mark Stearns, gave addresses suffused with quotes and anecdotes from American military past and present.
They started with George Washington and the signers of the Declaration of Independence and moved through Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of Armistice Day toward the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The ceremony specifically honored Vietnam War veterans, 273 of whom live in Sun City. The veterans association has 989 members.
Stearns spoke of his own service, which spanned 34 years and included conflicts in Panama and Somalia and the Gulf War.
“What does Veterans Day mean, and why are we here?” he asked.
He quoted George Washington: “The willingness with which our young people are likely to serve in any war, no matter how justified, shall be directly proportional to how they perceive veterans of early wars were treated and appreciated by our nation.”
The event was particularly emotional for Bob Kazenski, who had been a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps in Vietnam. It reminded him of a trip he made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
“From the moment I walked up to the memorial, I was crying,” he recalled. “I got that sense today, that there were times when we got teared up. Every name on the wall is a person with a background and family and a whole bunch of people that loved them.”
BANDS HONOR VETERANS
An all-star band representing Beaufort County’s public high schools opened for the Parris Island Marine Band at a concert at Battery Creek High School on Wednesday night.
They played “Hymn to the Fallen” by John Williams while students from Beaufort High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC gathered around an empty table at the center of the auditorium and asked the audience to remember those who have been prisoners of war or were missing in action.
“You need to show your appreciation for the veterans,” said Ronald Wayne, an alto saxophone player from Battery Creek High whose father is a retired Marine, “people who put their life on the line for your freedom.”
Ben Kulbertis, a tenor saxophone player from Hilton Head Island High School, said he enjoyed playing with musicians from other high schools as a part of the Veterans Day celebration. Usually, he said, those musicians compete against each other.
“As much as there are football rivalries, there are band rivalries,” he said.
But Kulbertis thought pairing cooperation among the school district’s high school bands with a celebration of the military was a good idea.
“It’s good to honor those who serve,” he said. “And band has traditionally been a part of the armed forces. That’s why we have the Parris Island band.”
Staff writers Laura Nahmias and Kate Cerve contributed to this report.