Three local organizations pooled their efforts for a community event on Tuesday that left no doubt in the minds of local veterans that their voices are heard and their service to the nation appreciated.
Fort Payne Mayor Brian Baine invited the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3128, American Legion Post 89 and the Northeast Alabama Marine Corps League Detachment 1404 to consolidate their efforts into one program this year. The groups now plan to meet quarterly.
The Veterans Day event happened Tuesday, rather than Thursday, because organizers wanted Fort Payne’s youth to witness the commemoration, as schools were closed on the actual holiday. Lt. Col. John M. Walker, US Army retired, Fort Payne High School senior JROTC Army Instructor, is a veteran of 28 years himself, and he directed the FPHS JROTC students in presenting the flags for the U.S. military service branches as Ian Pask conducted the band to play the anthems. Veterans stood at attention, saluting the flags of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard.
Walker said he loves for his students to watch the veterans’ emotional reactions to such recognitions. Historically, this happened during an event in the FPHS gymnasium, but COVID led to it moving to the open-air Rotary Pavilion in 2020.
“I can’t teach this in a classroom,” Walker said. “I need to have my cadets come here to experience this, honor these people and understand what sacrifice is all about. We teach the seven Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Students need to understand that these people have lived it.”
Herbert Hollingsworth stood in last minute to lead the prayer and introductions after Charles C. Martin was unable to attend. Valley Head Mayor Mike Key, who served as a Marine, led the pledge of allegiance and noted the two remaining WWII and Korean War veterans who stood to be recognized. Whitney Tinker sang the national anthem while the band Fortner’s 4 Christ sang three songs in tribute to veterans, including country music singer Lee Greenwood’s signature 1984 song “God Bless the U.S.A.”
Scott Azbell, the senior vice commander of the local VFW, introduced the featured speaker, local VFW Commander Eric Dudash. Both men are retired from the U.S. Air Force.
Dudash took part in 17 deployments including every conflict since Desert Shield/Storm, Iraq, Afghanistan and other engagements. During his comments Tuesday, he held up a flag patch that his parents gave him when he enlisted in 1988 as a reminder that service was about more than himself.
Dudash called on the veterans to continue sharing their needs. He thanked Baine and other local officials for their efforts to honor and assist veterans.
“Fort Payne’s leaders and businesses are rallying behind the Patriots Park trying to get that finished. It’s outstanding to see this right now,” he said.
Dudash noted there will be fewer veterans going forward as the combined U.S. military forces now stand at 1.4 million personnel, down from 12 million during World War II and 3.5 million during the Vietnam War.
“That’s an 89% and 60% decrease in manning, which means fewer veterans and few people in the service. Just like our community, our country has to work together. We’re going to have disagreements. We fight for that right for people to say their opinion and not be harmed in any way. Americans all need to come together, jointly, like we did in the military,” he said.
Following a moment of silence to remember POW/MIA soldiers, Nathan Pope performed Taps on his trumpet. Baine then closed out the event with a call for everyone to commemorate next year’s Veterans Day program with a completed Patriots Memorial Park.
“It’s because of the sacrifices you made that we have the freedom to stand up here tonight,” Baine said. “A goal of mine is to see this Patriots Park finished by next year. As Eric said, together we can do that. Together, we can make this what it needs to be and honor our veterans. We appreciate everyone working together. I’m going to make it my mission to show [veterans] continuously that we appreciate you. Thanks to everyone who came out to take part in this.”