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Although Veterans Day fell on Sunday, the holiday was marked on Monday as government offices closed.
It was a beautiful day for the National D-Day Memorial to celebrate the service of those who have worn or still wear the uniforms of our armed forces. It was sunny, with a light breeze and temperatures in the 60s as children from Bedford Elementary School, dressed in white shirts and black pants, sang a selection of songs for people gathered in the plaza below. Students from Staunton River Middle School passed thank-you letters to veterans of all services.
April Cheek, the D-Day Memorial's education director, noted that Veterans Day grew out of an observance of the end of World War I. The armistice that ended the fighting took effect on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. She said that 116,000 American servicemen were killed in that war. Since then, it has become a day to recognize Americans who served in our armed forces in all wars, as well as in peacetime. She called attention to the thousands, many of them National Guard members currently on active duty, that are serving now to defend freedom.
"They are carrying on an over 200-year tradition where brave men and women have answered the call of duty when freedom has been threatened," she said. "They willingly put on this nation's uniform, in wartime and in peace, and made sacrifices on our behalf."
According to Cheek, there are 25 million veterans in the United States, people who served in the Marines, Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, National Guard and Merchant Marine.
"Our young people today are surrounded by the realities of the current conflict," Cheek went on to say. "Dozens of students who come to the Memorial on field trips each week share stories with us of loved ones who are away, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. These young people understand the meaning of veterans and they understand the sacrifices our veterans have made and continue to make for our country."
General Binford Peay, who currently heads up Virginia Military Institute (VMI), was here for the ceremony. Peay served in Vietnam and commanded the 101st Airborne during the first Gulf War. Every summer, incoming "Rats" as VMI freshmen are called, come to the Memorial to learn about D-Day.
"It's important to remember," Gen. Peay said, noting that VMI graduates were at Omaha Beach on D-Day and are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some VMI cadets are also on active duty. They are in the National Guard or the Reserves and had to interrupt their studies to serve on active duty.
There were D-Day veterans at the ceremony. One of them, Douglas Woodyard, was a signalman on LST-376. Three days later, on June 9, his ship was carrying a load of men, tanks and trucks assigned to the 2nd Armored Division. His LST and another were torpedoed and sunk by a German torpedo boat. He was asleep, below decks when it happened.
"When I got topside the Army trucks and tanks were all aflame," he recalled.
Woodyard spent three hours floating in cold water. In all, 45 sailors and 66 soldiers aboard his LST died. They probably all would have died from hypothermia if it had not been for the skipper of a British warship.
"The HMS Beagle came in a mine field to get us," he said.
He ended up wearing a British Navy uniform for a bit. He still has it.
The D-Day Memorial often brings history to life and a living history display called attention to a little known aspect of World War II. Dave Smoot was on hand portraying a soldier with the 711th Railroad Operations Battalion assigned to the Persian Gulf Command.
Smoot said that the command started out based in Basra, Iraq, but later moved to Tehran, Iran. Its job was to ship military supplies via railroad to Russia. Russia was fighting the Germans on the eastern front and Smoot explained that every German soldier who was tied up in that fighting was not on the western front shooting at Americans. The Persian Gulf Command began operating before Pearl Harbor and Smoot's display is based on what one of many small stations along the railroad would have looked like in 1944.
Smoot got interested in this because of this nation's current involvement in that area. He noted that instructions to American servicemen sound current. Soldiers were warned to stay way from women, to not go near a mosque and to avoid eating with their left hands. He explained that, in those cultures, your left hand is your toilet hand and locals would consider using your toilet hand to eat with offensive.