Veterans honored in Fort Walton Beach ceremony at American Legion
FORT WALTON BEACH — The threat of inclement weather might have forced a change in the annual Veterans Day observance, but it didn't change the sentiments of those who gathered Wednesday to honor the men and women who have served the United States in uniform.
Lt. Gen. Jim Slife, commander of Hurlburt Field's Air Force Special Operations Command and one of the speakers for the observance, framed the day as a chance to "pay tribute to our nation's most precious resources — our veterans, past and present."
Instead of being held in the shadow of the Veterans Tribute Tower at Beal Memorial Cemetery, Wednesday's observance, threatened by rain, was moved to American Legion Post 235 on Hollywood Boulevard.
In addition to the weather, the coronavirus pandemic had an impact on this year's observance. People were urged to watch the proceedings via live-streaming video rather than attending the event.
But the hallmarks of the observance — the solemn tolling of a bell at the 11th hour, hearkening back to the origins of Veterans Day; the placing of flowers at a community wreath, the playing of "Taps" and a rifle volley — occurred just as in years past.
And, as Slife reminded the veterans, their family members and others who filled the American Legion on Wednesday, the observance of Veterans Day remains a reflection on the hearts of the people who have served in uniform.
"It's the human being ... who possessed an unshakable trust in something larger than themselves," Slife said. "I'm continually impressed with the caliber of those with whom I've had the honor to serve. ... To every veteran, I express my deepest gratitude. ... We honor you and your families."
As has been the case in previous years, members of the military from the United Kingdom assigned to the F-35 fighter jet reprogramming laboratories at Eglin Air Force Base also participated in Wednesday's ceremony. It is observed there as Remembrance Day.
"Regardless of when or where our veterans have served, this day belongs to them," said Royal Air Force Wing Commander Michael Knapton, who noted the longstanding ties between the military personnel of the United Kingdom and the United States.
"We're tied through action, but above all, through sacrifice," said Knapton, who himself has more than 1,000 combat flight hours.
Knapton added that in honoring and remembering both groups of veterans, "what we really must do is celebrate what they have provided" to the larger world through their service.
Also speaking Wednesday was Col. John Sannes, commander of the U.S. Army's 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base.
Sannes took a moment to recognize a local veteran, retired Army Lt. Col. Sam Lombardo. Lombardo, 101, is a veteran of World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
Sannes recounted the effort by Lombardo and his men during the war to make an American flag — when they couldn't get one elsewhere — from scraps of fabric they collected as they marched across the countryside.
Sannes called Lombardo, who was in attendance Wednesday, "an inspiration to all of us."
Among the things that remained unchanged about Wednesday's observance was the placing of flags in advance of Veterans Day at the graves of veterans at Beal Memorial Cemetery. Cadets from the Fort Walton Beach High School Air Force Junior ROTC program and officers from the Fort Walton Beach Police Department placed more than 1,600 flags at the cemetery.
Veterans Day traces its origins to Armistice Day, which commemorated the end of World War I — known then as "the war to end all wars" — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Armistice Day was first observed in the United States in 1919 and continued to be observed under that name until 1954.
In June of that year, in the wake of World War II and the Korean War, and at the urging of veterans service organizations, Congress changed the legislation establishing Armistice Day as an official holiday. Under the change, the holiday became known as Veterans Day, when American veterans of all wars are recognized.