Who is a veteran? According to these words from the American legion, "He is the cop on the beat who spent six months in Saudi Arabia sweating two gallons a day making sure the armored personnel carriers didn’t run out of fuel.
“He or she is the nurse who fought against futility and went to sleep sobbing every night for two solid years in Da Nang.
“He is the old guy bagging groceries at the supermarket — palsied now and aggravatingly slow – who helped liberate a Nazi death camp and who wishes all day long his wife were still alive to hold him when the nightmares come."
The country paid tribute to these men and women Thursday.
Veterans Day, officially created in 1954 under the signature of President Dwight Eisenhower, to honor all veterans from all wars, was celebrated all over the United States and its territories with great fanfare, bands, parades and speeches.
Late on a rainy Thursday afternoon on St. Thomas, in the old wooden building housing American Legion Post No. 90 in Sub Base, there was no parade or band, little fanfare and few speeches. But there was lots of heart, as the community provided an intimate tribute to those who have served and fallen.
The Veterans Day parade fell victim to the recent deluge, but no one rained on this ceremony. About 30 or so veterans, male and female, a smattering of government officials, some family and friends gathered together to salute the veterans with sincerity and song.
The American Legion choir, led by 20-year National Guard veteran Yvonne Francis, filled the hall with a vibrant melody, starting off with a rousing rendition of the “V.I. March.”
The hall was largely filled with veterans who saw their service decades ago, longtime friends. Austin "Babe" Monsanto, Edward Phillips, Ira Trent and Martin Toughy – all smartly attired in crisp white shirts, navy and yellow caps and shiny black shoes, hale and hearty – all saw service in the Korean war.
Neil Weiss, who at 86, said he was the "oldest" veteran there, was wearing a POW medal. "It’s the only one in the Virgin Islands," he said. "I spent 17 months in a German POW camp."
Veterans Affairs Assistant Director Harry Daniels, who served as master of ceremonies, explained how the weather kept Gov. John deJongh, keynote speaker Command Sgt. Maj. Althea G. Dixont and the 73rd Army Band on St. Croix.
No matter. The folks who mattered – the veterans – didn’t miss a beat in their appreciation of the ceremony, standing erect, singing along with the American Legion choir, enjoying every minute of the tribute.
Tributes were brief, some of them off the cuff.
Edward deLagarde delivered a message from Delegate Donna Christensen who was in Washington, D.C., which included a welcome home to the 786th National Guard Battalion, which returned to the territory last week after a year at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Standing in for deJongh, Finance Commissioner Angel Dawson said "As we know, the governor speaks extemporaneously, so I have no prepared speech. I had to come up with something quickly."
Dawson said, "I thought of my hero, Abraham Lincoln, who set the standard for how speeches should be delivered, the 10 sentences of the Gettysburg Address, which concludes: ‘This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’"
He continued, "Last Tuesday we honored that government with no shots fired. Lincoln said it was the nation’s duty to ‘care for him who shall have borne the battle.’"
For all nonveterans, Dawson said, we honor veterans with words from the Book of Matthew: "For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me."
Or, as we might say today, in these words from the American Legion: "Remember, each time you see someone who has served our country, just lean over and say ‘Thank you.’ That’s all most people need."