November 12, 2011 11:40:00 PM
Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]
"We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow, loved and were loved ..." So says the enduring poem, "In Flanders Fields," penned by Canadian doctor Lt. Col. John McRae in 1915 to honor the death of a friend and encourage people to never forget the human cost of battle. A few years later, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, Germany signed the Armistice and World War I -- the "war to end all wars" -- drew to a close. But the wars did not end.
Saturday morning, as a crowd of around 350 people gathered at the Lowndes County Courthouse to remember the fallen and honor those serving our country today, many attendees stopped to take note of the three National Guard Humvees which led Columbus's annual Veterans Day parade.
The armored vehicles weren't here last year. They -- and the men and women who occupy them -- were deployed.
Freedom is not free, veterans often say, and 1st District U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, drove that message home during the ceremony's keynote address.
While members of Columbus Air Force Base's 14th Flying Training Wing stood with their hands clasped behind their backs, toddlers played in drifts of freshly fallen leaves and autumn sunlight painted the scene in shades of gold. An empty chair marked the memory of those who did not come home.
Tuesday, Americans across the country participated in Election Day, Nunnelee noted. Friday night, people packed high school stadiums to cheer their favorite football teams to victory. Sunday morning will find many families in church. Next week, students will return to the classroom and employees will return to the workplace.
The freedom to choose our leaders, enjoy our leisures, worship, study, work and live as we see fit, always and forever free -- these are privileges we take for granted, Nunnelee said.
On days like Veterans Day, we pause to remember.
We pause to remember people like Columbus resident Jesse Cobb, 91, who sat through the ceremony quietly, spine straight, eyes fixed forward, hands gripping a black Prisoner of War/Missing In Action flag. Cobb served in Word War II and was in Italy the day Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were executed.
We pause to remember people like Willie Bankhead, 89, who -- assisted by CAFB Commander Col. Barre Seguin and Lowndes County District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders -- placed a ceremonial wreath of red, white and blue flowers.
Bankhead served in France and was part of the Normandy Invasion. The feet that once marched were slow, faltering. The hands that once held a rifle were not as steady as when he was a younger man. But the pride and dignity remained.
As the last strains of "Taps" drifted across the chilly breeze, the people stood silent, lost in memories of loved ones passed, loved ones far away.
A sudden rush of softly flapping wings broke the stillness as Columbus resident Larry Priest released a covey of mourning doves, and everyone watched as they soared, gray-white against a clear blue sky.
"It went wonderful," organizer Cherie McGuff said afterward. "Attendance was really good ... I wish the streets had been filled all the way down the parade route."
McGuff's husband, Jimmie McGuff, sat in a wheelchair, a red crepe paper poppy adorning the lapel of his denim jacket. He grew up in Pickens County and served in the Army and National Guard for 16.5 years.
As much as this was his day, it was also a day to honor his brothers in arms as well as his three sons, two of whom joined the Army and one who joined the Air Force.
He liked the ceremony, he said, but too many people fail to give the day the significance it deserves. He worries that if people forget to remember, history will repeat itself.
For that reason, people like Cherie McGruff, along with representatives from various military and civic organizations across the county, have been planning Saturday's events since July.
"I just wish more citizens within the city and county would pay tribute to the servicemen," Columbus Mayor Robert Smith said. "It was a great crowd, but it should have been larger."
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.