Standing before the flags, monuments and military relics Saturday at the George E. Mann Veterans Memorial Park, local Disabled American Veterans post chairman James Graves said what most had to be thinking.
“This is like something out of Hollywood; it’s like somebody scripted it for us....today is perfect. The wind is light and gentle; the sun is shining. It’s a perfect day.”
And so it was, as hundreds of local supporters gathered at a ceremony both upbeat and solemn to honor generations of men and women in the U.S. armed forces who’ve served country before self.
Coming a calendar day early, Saturday’s Veterans’ Day ceremony at Sportsman Lake saw local leaders offering poignant remarks about the way in which veterans’ contributions have affected them as public servants and as people.
But the spotlight belonged to featured speaker and retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel Julian Campbell, a 93-year-old Cullman County native who served tours of duty in both major WWII combat theaters, as well as in Korea and Vietnam.
A bomber pilot who flew 40 combat mission in WWII Europe, Campbell drove home his message that even the smallest gesture of support from others can make a lifetime’s worth of difference — support that’s cherished by soldiers who travel far from American soil to do terrifying and dirty work, all in the service of principles bigger than one’s self.
Midway through his speech, Campbell produced a small piece of paper — a remnant of a Bible verse sent him by his mother during WWII — that, having read during a tense period of conflict while stationed in Germany, he then had saved for nearly seven decades.
“Every time we took off on a mission, we wondered if this would be the end. After one rough mission, when we had encountered heavy flak, I arrived back at my base, and I had received one of my frequent letters from my mother — my spiritual leader. She wrote me often and assured me that she and dad were praying for me, constantly. In that letter, she had included a page from the Bible. I read through her letter, and found that she had outlined the page from the 91st Psalm.”
Reciting the scripture that buoyed his faith through isolation, fear and uncertainty, Campbell offered a tangible artifact commemorating the support he’d received from home when he was a soldier fighting through dark times. Campbell held a tattered scrap high in his right hand. He spoke through tears.
“That was 69 years ago, folks — it’ll be 70 years ago, come next July — and I’m proud to say: here’s the Bible page.”
The ceremony also included a short remembrance for Mann, the memorial park’s namesake, who died in July of this year. A twice-honored Purple Heart recipient who fought for the U.S. Army during WWII, Mann remained an advocate for educating the public about veterans’ issues until late in his life.
Local VFW Post 2214 member Ken Brown honored Mann with a brief eulogy.
“I wanted to mention George before this gathering one last time — In the year of his passing, before his band of brothers, whom he dearly loved, in a place he worked hard to build — and that he firmly believed was sacred ground. We miss you, George.”
* Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.