ELIZABETHTOWN — When the call went out at the National Guard Armory on Tuesday for the oldest veteran in the audience to come forward, 86-year-old Bennett McDowell of Elizabethtown didn’t hear it. It’s just one of the things he’s lost over the years since his service to the United States.
But with the assistance of those around him, McDowell — a veteran of the Korean War and life member of American Legion Post 404 in Elizabethtown — made it to the front of the stage and was honored by G. Ann Garrett, a retired veteran of the U.S. Army, with a gift basket as part of the day’s 10th annual Bladen County Veteran’s Day Ceremony.
“This is a special day in America,” said Lt. Col. Roy Allen, who served as the master of ceremonies. “We should also all remember the families of those who served.”
Allen said Veteran’s Day is the only congressionally mandated national holiday, and that less than 10 percent of Americans can call themselves veterans. In North Carolina, there are about 800,000 veterans.
The ceremony, held indoors because of the chilly and damp weather, included brief speeches from Commander Barrett Foster with the Army National Guard, Bladen Community College President William Findt, John Lowery with NC Works and Elizabethtown Mayor Sylvia Campbell.
Campbell also took time to recognize the veterans in attendance from all branches of the military, calling each of them to the front of the stage to be honored with applause.
Greg Elkins, planning director for Bladen County, then presented the family of the late Dr. Robert Lee Summerlin with a memorial tribute. Summerlin, who died in May 2015, was retired from the U.S. Navy and served many years as a physician in Bladen County.
The special guest speaker for the event was Command Sgt. Maj. Annie Walker, a graduate of East Bladen High who has served in the U.S. Army since 1986.
I’m just a small-town girl with big dreams trying to make a difference,” she said. “Today is not about me, but about all of those who have served this country proudly.
“Veterans … you had to break down barriers and knock down doors and clear pathways long before I arrived, and for that I thank you,” Walker added.
Walker, who has earned numerous awards and recognition during her career, entered the Army as a finance specialist after graduating with a bachelor’s of science degree from Excelsior University and a master’s degree in education from Touro University. She currently serves as commandant of the Noncommissoined Officers Academy at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“I believe every day should be Veterans Day, and we should always give veterans our thanks,” she said. “They are our truest heroes. They are ordinary, extraordinary human beings.
“Giving them a ‘thank-you’ will always mean more than any medal they may earn,” she added. “Veterans, you are legendary in your own right.”
Following Walker’s speech, the crowd was entertained with drill team activities from East Bladen High, West Bladen High and Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy — and it was the cadets from the Academy who stole the show.
Wrapping up the ceremony, there was a pacing of the wreath; a cutting of the cake; West Bladen High trumpeter Kalen Hunsinger played taps; and the retirement of the colors was held. The crowd then disperse for a barbecue lunch furnished by Bo Pharr.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.