On the spur of the moment, I decided to attend the Veterans Day program at the Tennessee Veterans Cemetery this year. Although I drive by the solemn rows of tombstones every day, I’d never ventured up the hill to the octagonal structure at the top. This year, in the wake of the Fort Hood massacre, I felt moved to do so. I wanted to honor our veterans in a personal way. My dad, a Korean War veteran, went with me to the service hosted by the Tennessee Chapter of the State Guard Association of the United States. Neither of us knew what to expect.
Other than a brief stint in UT’s Air Force ROTC, where my only claim to fame was to be nominated to the military ball court, I’ve never had the privilege of serving my country in the armed forces. But there are people close to me who have served and still do.
I’m especially proud of my uncle, retired Army Colonel William McClure Keeling, a Knoxville native who served as a surgeon in four military conflicts: World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam (where he commanded the 18th Surgical Hospital at Kwang Tri) and the first Iraq War, when he was called back to active duty under Operation Desert Storm. “It looked like we were in trouble in the Middle East, and they were going to need more people in the Army,” he said at the time.
On this blustery November 11, a hundred or so people gathered to pay tribute to our men and women who “serve to preserve this land of hopes and dreams,” as one of the speakers so aptly put it.
“Wars are fought not by John Wayne and Sylvester Stallone, where the good guys always win,” said the Reverend John Justice in his invocation. “Real wars are fought by good guys who sometimes die.”
Eddie Mannis, originally from Powell, was part of the program. A successful businessman who founded Prestige Cleaners, he’s also a community activist. But the reason he was speaking on Veterans Day was because of his commitment to HonorAir Knoxville, which he established. HonorAir Knoxville is sponsored by Prestige Cleaners, Covenant Health and Home Federal Bank in partnership with the Rotary Foundation of Knoxville. The organization’s stated purpose is to fly as many East Tennessee World War II veterans as possible to Washington D.C. to see the World War II Memorial built in their honor.
Mannis said over 16 million Americans fought in WWII; the youngest was just 12 years old. 400,000 Americans were killed in action, and 600,000 were wounded. There are fewer than two million WWII veterans still alive today. In less than five years, the Greatest Generation will be gone.
HonorAir exists in other cities, but it was Mannis’ vision that brought it to Knoxville. The first flight was in October 2007. Since then, Mannis and his team have flown 600 WWII veterans to Washington D.C. for a whirlwind day-long all-expense-paid adventure that culminates with the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The seventh flight is scheduled for April 28, 2010.
In his Veterans Day column in the Knoxville News Sentinel, Mannis included some comments from HonorAir participants that he also shared with us during the program.
John Edds said, “The day was emotional, especially the arrival in Washington and back in Knoxville. When I came home from the war, there was no fanfare. I had to hitchhike home to Claiborne County, so this homecoming reception meant so much.”
Raymond Shirley wrote, “The welcome awaiting us upon our return to Knoxville moved me to tears. When I was discharged from the Navy, I was given a bus ticket home to Sheffield, Ala. I arrived unnoticed.”
Bernie Shorr said, “After 68 years, I now realize that the American public really does appreciate what we did.”
There were HonorAir alums in the audience to hear Mannis speak. He was gracious and humble in his remarks, saying “Thank you for your gift to all of us. That gift is the American way of life.”
The AMVETS Riders were there too. This patriotic group of motorcycle riders stood quietly in the background – not part of the official agenda, although their presence was felt. Fredda Temples sang “America the Beautiful” and “Somewhere over the Rainbow.” The Volunteer State Veterans Honor Guard presented the colors and sounded the volley. Retired Master Sergeant Maurice Parks, USMC, played a haunting and eloquent rendition of taps.
According to the official Web site of the state of Tennessee, the Volunteer State nickname comes from the record number of volunteers the state provided during both the War of 1812 and the Mexican War. Specifically, the name honors the bravery of the soldiers from Tennessee who served under General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans, a U.S. victory during the War of 1812. Yes, even before football, Tennessee had its share of “Volunteers,” willing to serve and die for our country.
Retired Army Major Larry Moore fought with the 173rd Airborne in Vietnam. He was at the November 11 ceremony, where he was proudly wearing his uniform and bragging that one grandson was in the Coast Guard and another was an Army Ranger. Service is a family tradition for Moore and so many East Tennesseans.
My friend, Major Wiley Hammer of the HHT 3/278th Armored Calvary Regiment with the Army National Guard, is about to deploy for his third tour in Iraq. These are his words: “The man you share a laugh and drink with tonight will share your foxhole next week. Let us not falter, let us not fail.” This holiday season, let us not fail to thank the men and women who honor us with their patriotism, their courage and their sacrifice.