Soldiers, veterans and Fort Drum community members gathered Thursday at Magrath Sports Complex to honor the sacrifices of American service members past and present.
“A veteran is someone who at one point in his or her life, wrote a blank check, payable to the United States of America, for an amount up to and including his or her life,” said retired Col. Mike Plummer, president of the Fort Drum Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
“They are all heroes to me,” said Plummer, one of two distinguished veterans well known by the division to speak at the event. “I am humbled to have been privileged to know and serve such incredible men and women throughout my life.”
Plummer was a member of the command group at Fort Drum after the 10th Mountain Division’s reactivation in 1985.
He shared guest speaker duties with an original member of the division who fought in Italy during World War II – William Morrison, president of the Upstate New York Chapter of the National Association of the 10th Mountain Division.
After the singing of the national anthem and an invocation, Plummer and Morrison joined Maj. Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, Fort Drum and 10th Mountain Division (LI) commander, and Division Command Sgt. Maj. Rick Merritt to place a large wreath in the center of the gym floor as a way of honoring the sacrifices of all U.S veterans.
Before introducing the two guest speakers, Townsend asked veterans in the audience to stand to be recognized. He also shared a few remarks while explaining a little of the history of the observance.
The general said Veterans Day was known as Armistice Day when it was first observed Nov. 11, 1919, to honor the sacrifices of World War I veterans. Armistice Day was officially recognized by the U.S. government in 1926 through a congressional resolution.
After World War II and the Korean War, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, which expanded the scope of the day to recognize all U.S. service members who served both in peacetime and in war.
“For nearly a century, we have celebrated our veterans on this day,” Townsend said. “Today, I want us to remember not only their gallantry on the battlefield but also their service and sacrifice during peacetime.
“American veterans have accomplished extraordinary things for the good of our country and the world,” he added. “They have earned our eternal gratitude, the honor of a grateful nation and remembrance on this day of the year.”
After being introduced by Townsend, Morrison said he and his fellow division veterans of World War II were grateful for the “10th Light” of today that continues to carry the division’s proud legacy into the future.
He went on to recall several surreal experiences from his time at war in the Apennine Mountains of northern Italy, describing them as pivotal and “private moments,” typically involving assorted memories – a rocky slope, patches of mud and snow, an urgent cry for “medic!” or the gentle comfort of the earth beneath a blue and warming sky.
“Somewhere, in the few short hours between sunrise and sunset, that day in early spring, our lives were forever changed,” Morrison said of the division’s battle for Mount Belvedere in early 1945. “It was a day when youth and innocence were lost.”
He urged Soldiers and veterans to find ways to share their lasting memories with others.
“For those who have been to war, there will be moments of combat forever frozen in time that need to be remembered, now, or possibly years down the road, because they are part of who you are,” he said.
Plummer addressed the crowd next.
He said some U.S. veterans bear visible signs of their service, such as a missing limb or a jagged scar. Others may carry the evidence inside of them, whether a piece of shrapnel in the leg or a pin holding bone together, or another kind of inner steel, like traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress.
Except in parades, Plummer explained, the men and women who have kept America safe rarely wear badges or emblems; they are former warriors whom most people could never identify “just by looking.”
“He is that 90-year-plus old man in a wheelchair staring out the window of a VA hospital,” he said. “He is a barroom loudmouth whose overgrown schoolboy behavior is outweighed 100 times in the hearts of his fellow Soldiers for the four hours of extreme bravery near the 38th parallel in Korea when he saved their lives in hand-to-hand combat.
“He is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket, frail now and aggravatingly slow, who had three infantry tours in Vietnam and who wishes, all day long, that his wife was still alive to hold him when the nightmares come,” Plummer said. “She is the half-marathon runner who lost both legs in an IED attack in Iraq who is training for a full marathon.
“He is the drill instructor who never saw combat but has saved countless lives by turning boys and girls into Soldiers and teaching them to live the Army values,” he continued. “He is one of the many spectators watching a parade in honor of our Soldiers returning from Afghanistan and one of the few who stands when the colors pass by.
“A veteran is an ordinary and yet extraordinary human being – a person who gave some of his or her life’s most vital years in the service of country and who placed self in harm’s way so that we and our children could continue to breathe the fresh air of freedom,” Plummer added.
“Remember each time you see someone who has served our country,” he concluded, “just lean over and say thank you. That’s all most people need. And in most cases, it will mean more than any medal earned.”
Originally scheduled to take place in Memorial Park, last week’s ceremony was moved to the gym after strong winds through the night swept a large event tent and poles into the Military Mountaineers Monument, toppling the statue from its granite base.
The sculpture and base sustained minimal damage in the
incident. The monument is expected to be stood back up by next week.
To conclude the observance, audience members stood for a three-volley salute, the playing of taps and “Amazing Grace,” a moment of silence and the benediction.