Thanks abound on Veteran's Day

Metro (L to R) Kathi Bunch consoles her Mom Katherine Barfield during North Charleston Armed Forces Tribute for Veterans Day held at Sterrett Hall, at the old Navy Base Wednesday, November 11, 2009. Barfield's husband Joseph, who was a World War II veteran passed away three weeks ago. (Brad Nettles/The Post and Courier) 11/11/09

Brad Nettles

Their experience may have been in wars 20 years apart, but the messages sent by two Charleston veterans to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan sounded the same.

"Keep your head down," urged James Lee, 69, of Johns Island, who wears a Purple Heart from his service in Vietnam. "But keep your spirit high."

"Do what you have to do," said World War II medic Wilford "Smiley" Corbin, 89, of North Charleston. "Then come home."

A solemn Veterans Day was celebrated from Washington to Fort Hood, Texas, and beyond Wednesday, but it was especially marked around Charleston County, home to nearly 35,000 ex- military men and women, making it the largest contingent in the state.

In one of several local observances, as many as 300 veterans and their spouses gathered in the aged Sterrett Hall auditorium on the grounds of the former Charleston Naval Base to hear speakers thank them for their service, sacrifices and a sometimes unsung role in promoting democracy.

"What's so important about democracies?" retired Marine Col. Bob Mastion said. "Democracies don't go to war with each other. Dictators go to war with whoever they think they can beat. That's your legacy."

South Carolina is home to more than 410,000 military veterans, according to U.S. Census figures, with the largest representation coming from those who served during the Vietnam era at about 141,000. "Peacetime" service ranked second at about 103,000.

On a day when speakers thanked veterans from all service branches, local statistics remind us that problems plaguing some of America's former fighting men and women aren't going away, and in some cases, are intensifying. Post-traumatic stress disorder, diabetes and Parkinson's disease are among the more common maladies affecting vets today, said Don Morillo, director of the Charleston County Veterans Affairs Office.

Homelessness is another issue. One survey from last winter showed as many as 375 homeless veterans living around Charleston.

Several gatherings around town Wednesday also honored the role of disabled veterans, including the Charleston group Anchor's Away. Its members are launching an effort geared around outdoor water programs, especially sailing, for vets with disabilities.

North Charleston's event was the first Veterans Day recognition of any kind for Vietnam War vet Arthur Taylor, 61. He lost three close friends in Vietnam and said that for years it was just too painful for him to do anything in public on Veterans Day. He was coaxed into attending the event by some friends.

"It always gets to me," he said.

For 89-year-old Navy veteran Robert Sutherland of North Charleston, the passing of so many Veterans Days since World War II ended means that the nature of war had changed greatly, as is evident from the demise of ships like the one he served on, the battleship Washington, in the South Pacific. "There's no use for them anymore," he said.

While South Carolina veterans enjoyed their day, some of the speakers said the remembrance this year should go far beyond America's borders.

The Rev. Isaac Holt brought that point home during the invocation.

"When one soldier is in a foxhole," he said, "America is in that foxhole."