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November 8, 2020

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Upstate Warrior Solution, 101 West St. John Street, Suite 17, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 520-2073.

Five of my uncles served our country during World War II. Two were in the Navy, two were in the Army Air Corps, and one was in the regular Army. Uncle Buzz was in the Normandy invasion. Uncle Bill was assigned to the Pacific. Two were in bombers that were shot down over Germany. Uncle Bury parachuted into Switzerland. Uncle David was taken as a prisoner of war.  Uncle Robert endured the harsh life of an infantryman and then was captured as a prisoner of war. From these uncles, I learned a significant truth. In war, there are no soldiers without wounds.

Mark Twain wrote, “The patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated, and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

This profound quote from a great humorist speaks an important truth. November 11, Veterans Day, soldiers and the citizens join in a time of remembrance. Elmer Davis said, “This nation will remain the land of the free only so long as it is the home of the brave.”

November 11 is designated as a day of gratitude for the brave.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, an armistice ending World War I between Germany and the Allied nations went into effect. The treaty signed at Rethondes, France, ushered in an era of peace.

In 1919, President Wilson proclaimed that Armistice Day, November 11, should be “filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” There were parades and public meetings.  Business activities were briefly suspended at 11:00 A.M.

In 1926, the United States Congress declared that the armistice’s anniversary should be commemorated with prayer and thanksgiving. The flag of the United States was to be displayed on all Government buildings. On November 11, observances were to be held in schools and churches, or other suitable places.

This day was initially intended to honor veterans of World War I.  In 1954, after World War II, by an Act of Congress, November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans. The day became Veterans Day. 

Traditionally a two-minute silence is observed on November 11. It is two minutes well spent because we too easily take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude.

My cousin, Jim Hudson, a retired Army Captain, shared an event in his military experience that gave me an important reminder. T^hose who serve our country, even in times of peace and in places that are not war zones, can suffer tragedy in the line of duty.

On Thursday, December 12, 1985, a DC-8 charter flight carrying 248 passengers and a crew of eight crashed just after takeoff from Gander International Airport, Newfoundland.  All onboard perished.  The resulting fire, fed by contents of the stricken aircraft’s full fuel tanks, took firefighters 30 hours to extinguish.

The passengers of the ill-fated flight were United States Army soldiers.  All but twelve were members of the 3rd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division.  Captain Terry Rains, a helicopter pilot, was one who died.

The tragedy at Gander ranks as the worst military air disaster during peacetime in our nation’s history. Thirty-five years later, Jim still remembers.  It wasn’t just that soldiers had died.  A seasoned soldier learns to expect an empty chair at the table.  But for Jim, this was personal.  These brothers in arms wore the Screaming Eagle patch of the 101st on their left shoulder, just as Jim did.

Terry was Jim’s next-door neighbor at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.  Rhonda, Terry’s wife, asked Jim to escort her husband’s body; to take him home to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, with the respect and dignity due to a fallen comrade.

Jim accompanied Terry’s body from the Mortuary Affairs Unit, Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, to Washington, D.C., to Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Each time the casket was loaded or unloaded from the hold of the airplane, Jim was required to oversee the transfer.  Jim stood on the tarmac and saluted, giving proper military courtesy.

In Tulsa, Jim met the representative from the funeral home.  Airport personnel uncrated and placed the casket on a gurney.  An American flag was draped over the coffin.  Jim saluted, then helped load Terry’s casket into the hearse.  He saw two older men, perhaps veterans, remove their work caps, holding them over their hearts. Jim was deeply moved.

On the day of the funeral, Jim met with Terry’s parents, Rhonda, and the children.  Together they went to the graveside.  An officer, who had encouraged Terry to enlist, presented Rhonda with the flag and a beret bearing Terry’s medals.  From a hill on the other side of the cemetery, a lone bugler sounded “Taps.”  Those familiar notes, drifting above the garden of stone, lingered briefly.  Jim, overcome with emotion, was finally able to weep for his friend.

In a Farewell Address to a joint meeting of Congress in 1951, General Douglas MacArthur quoted the words of an old barracks song, “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.”  But soldiers do die, and, among their comrades in arms, soldiers grieve, and grieve deeply.

Last week, I went with our daughter and her two children to Greenlawn Memorial Gardens to visit the grave of our son, Erik. It has been twenty years since Erik died.  While a tincture of time has healing power, a loved one’s death leaves a pain that lingers in the human heart. Erik was not a veteran, but he died as a young man. Clare and I are able to empathize with other parents who have lost young adult children much too soon, whether their loved one served in the military or not.

In the cemetery section where Erik is buried, several graves are marked with headstones that read NEELY. These are the plots of my grandparents, my parents, and other family members, including several uncles who were veterans. My granddaughters asked about these other deceased members of our family.

I told the stories of two. These uncles were men that I knew and loved. They were heroes in my mind. They seldom mentioned their military service. I probably have told more about their wartime experiences than they ever said. I think that the pain of memory must have been too great for them to say much about what happened to them.

Last week at Greenlawn, I had the chance to share with my granddaughters the stories of veterans. I am grateful for their service to this country and the legacy they have left for future generations.  

Veterans Day, Wednesday, November 11, is an opportunity for all of us to remember with gratitude those who have served in war and in peace. It is a time to be sure that our memories of them do not fade away.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. His new book and first novel, December Light 1916, is available at all bookstores and online booksellers. He can be reached at

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