American service men and women were honored Thursday as Hilton Head Island-area residents and veterans filed by the hundreds into the veterans memorial at Shelter Cove Community Park to celebrate their commitment and sacrifice.
Hilton Head's annual Veterans Day observance was hosted by the town and the Military Veterans Coalition of Hilton Head Island, which represents the three primary veterans organizations on the island -- the Navy League of the United States, the Military Officers Association of America and American Legion Post 185.
Warren Wilson, division commander of Hilton Head's volunteer U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary division and a former member of the U.S. Army Reserves, has attended for the past 10 years.
Dressed in full uniform, Wilson said he was impressed by the hour-long ceremony, which featured Hilton Head High School's junior ROTC cadets, the Hilton Head Choral Society and representatives of Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.
"We should all take time today to personally reflect on the service of all our veterans and pray for those still serving today," Wilson said. "We come out every year and show support for our fellow service men and women."
Beaufort County is home to more than 18,000 veterans, according to the county Department of Veterans Affairs.
During the ceremony, retired service men and women, veterans from Hilton Head and Bluffton, and elected officials joined hundreds of residents, including Bluffton Cub Scout Pack 241, in thanking veterans and active-duty military for their service.
Retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Larry Budge of Bluffton said the holiday was a chance for residents to thank not only the troops, but the families who have supported the nation's veterans over the years.
"The families have had to endure the separation, anxiety and, sometimes, the grief that comes with having a loved one in the military," Budge said. "It's important we honor them, as well."
Budge, who retired from the Army in 1992 after serving as assistant deputy chief of staff for personnel and seeing combat during two tours in Vietnam, specifically thanked Korean War veterans in honor of the 60th anniversary of the conflict's beginning.
"It's called the 'Forgotten War,' but it remains one of this country's most difficult. It was a bloody and costly war, and we pay tribute to their skill and courage," Budge said. "If freedom is not free, then someone has to pay the price for what we have."
Veterans Day 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 in 1954, Congress changed its name to Veterans Day to honor all U.S. veterans.
Gene Sullivan, former president of Hilton Head's Navy League and chairman of the event, said he hopes the holiday will remind young Americans that it's important to recognize the service of both veterans and active-duty military.
"One of my biggest hopes is that our young people get a better sense of the sacrifice and service our veterans have given," Sullivan said. "Like the general said, freedom isn't free. Today is a tradition, but we can honor our armed forces every day."