When Wes Smith, of New Orleans, enlisted in the military in the early 1950s, he saw joining up as a step toward a brighter future for himself.
“It was a way to move on with my life,” he said.
Smith, now 87 and a Harrisonburg resident, sat in a red fold-out chair with his walker in front of him saluting the red, white and blue flag of the nation he and millions of other Americans fought to protect at the annual Veterans Day ceremony outside James Madison University’s Memorial Hall on Monday.
“What I honor today is not me, or these guys and girls who are here, but the ones who we left behind,” he said, referring to service members who lost their lives in conflicts.
“So many young people — who knows?” Smith said. “We used to say they could’ve grown up to be president.”
Smith fought in Easy Company of the 1st Marine Division during the Korean War between 1951 and 1954. He was one of dozens of veterans and area residents who showed up for the event, which is organized by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Rion-Bowman Post 632 in Harrisonburg.
“If you’re like me you can get very emotional just talking to thinking about it,” Smith said of those who have died in service. “But I try not to do that.”
The ceremony always starts with a bang — the blank firing of a captured German artillery piece.
The cannon, made by Krupp in 1917, is not the only such German artifact of its kind in the area.
A World War II-era PaK anti-tank gun sits in front of the Harrisonburg National Guard building on Willow Street, and on the way into downtown Dayton lies a rare, and large, K16 Krupp cannon, which was capable of hurling 111-pound shells nearly 14 miles across no man’s land while in German service during the First World War.
The “war trophy” was given to the town in recognition of sending a regimental band to entertain soldiers in the First World War, according to Dayton historian Jody Meyerhoeffer.
But Monday’s ceremony is more than just the firing of an antique.
“It’s a shame that people don’t realize what it means,” said Michael Angel Nicolas, the commanding officer of the post and decorated Vietnam veteran. “In memorial, we remember all those who have died for our country.”
City Councilman George Hirschmann read a proclamation from the city recognizing the holiday, and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, addressed the crowd and thanked veterans for their service.
“Last week we had a little event here in the state of Virginia — the election,” Wilt said. “I want to thank all you veterans because you’re the ones that make that possible.”
“Each and every year, the elections that we have are because of your service that makes it possible for us as a state, a nation and localities to have elections for all the citizens to be able to have a voice,” he said.
People then laid a wreath along with red, white and blue flowers, signifying remembrance, devotion, purity and eternity, respectively, at the memorial. Nicolas then added a final touch — a small American flag.
Smith said the event to him was a somber remembrance of those who did not come home, instead of a glorification of conflict, he said.
“Don’t let people think this is glorious heroics at all because you come out here once a year to salute the flag,” Smith said. “That’s not what this is about.”
The sentiment is shared by Nicolas, who also mentioned that many of those who do come back from conflict often have physical and/or mental health issues.
Nicolas said the turnout on Monday was lower than previous years. Partnering with more groups, such as city schools, would help increase turnout and be educational for students, he said.
“So they can understand what a veteran is and so they can appreciate more of what they have,” Nicolas said of what students could gain by coming to the ceremony.
“A veteran feels proud when you recognize them,” he said. “I’m not asking you to kiss their hands or anything, just maybe give them a hug.”