During his brief speech at the 2009 Veterans Day ceremony inside the Soldotna Sports Center, Jim Herrick, the commander of American Legion Post No. 20, asked all the veterans to raise their hands. Then he asked all the spouses of veterans to raise their hands. Then mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, friends and cousins. By the time Herrick had finished, nearly everyone in the audience pointed a hand straight to the ceiling.
"I salute you all," Herrick said. Because Alaska is such a sparsely populated state, it has one of the highest concentrations of veterans in the country, Herrick said after the ceremony. As the strong turnout on Wednesday at 11 a.m. proved, the Kenai Peninsula is no exception. "I wanted to show everyone that just about everybody here is related to a vet."
The spirit of unity seemed to dominate Wednesday's ceremony. Every speaker thanked the men and women who have served in the military, but they also reminded attendees why veterans are serving, who they are serving and who else sacrifices when veterans serve.
Nick Nelson, representing the Military Order of the Purple Heart, drew a standing ovation when he lauded not just the veterans, but their loved ones as well.
"You don't need to have a Purple Heart or any of those other medals. It's all the people here today," Nelson said. "I'm not here just to recognize the vets."
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dave Carey spoke of his 29-year-old mother who had to raise five children after her husband was killed in action.
"For the families of those who serve," Carey said, "They serve, too."
Guest speaker and Army recruiter Nathan Cassano said the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens who never serve should be grateful for the men and women willing to sacrifice.
"I take every day to honor veterans both present and past," Cessano said. "They say in times of war babies are born to replace those that are lost. When I look at my son, who is in the back of the room, I thank a vet. When I see elections and watch the freedoms of democracy, I thank a vet. When I see children going to school, I thank a vet. When I stand at attention and salute the flag, I thank a vet," Cessano said as his eyes misted.
Veterans have protected the American flag and all it stands for, Vietnam vet Al Helminski said after the service. Veterans Day gives people the chance to celebrate the enablers of liberty.
"When they see a flag, there's a reason it is flying free," Helminski said after the ceremony. Helminski said he worked as a crew chief mechanic on a medical helicopter that rescued soldiers wounded during combat.
"I had to grow up fast as a result of my experiences, but I have a lifelong love of life and a remembrance that cannot be taken away from me," Helminski said. "It just reminds me of how good we've got it here and how bad some other countries have got it. I wouldn't want to be a citizen anywhere else."
Veterans Day creates a moment to celebrate everything Americans often take for granted, City of Soldotna Mayor Pete Micciche said.
"As I tucked my children in last night, I thought of you," Micciche told the veterans. "You made it safe. Most Americans don't know the horrors of war and it's because of you."
Most Americans don't know the horrors of war, but many American understands the freedoms that result from a soldier's sacrifice during combat. Perhaps nothing said that better Wednesday than the national anthem. As Robert Booth began to sing "The Star Spangled Banner," almost everyone in the room joined him.
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