Veteran's Day in Magnolia, 2013, was picturesque. Autumn was beginning to make itself felt, sending a cool breeze to cut through the fading Texan summer's residual heat. Hundreds gathered outside the Magnolia Historical Depot to celebrate the living history of this town and to open the viewing of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall.
The crowd, peppered right and left with flags, filed in to take their seats in front of a simply decorated stage. Baseball caps sporting dates and logos peeked above benches, marking their owners as service persons from all branches of the military. Beside them sat a picturesque version of this nation's melting pot – different ages, different races, different genders – who all came together to honor the men and women who have served our country in the military.
The provided seating was soon filled to overflowing and people began to stand along the side of the Depot and the stairs leading up to it. By the time bagpipes heralded the presentation of the colors, about 400 people were in attendance.
The presentation was followed by a brief invocation from Rev. Milt Eichler, which was in turn followed by a succession of speeches.
The first to take the podium was Staff Sgt. Jessica Cavender. Cavender serves in the US Marine Corps as a meteorologist, examining weather patterns in 15 countries in the West Pacific.
"People always ask you what was your job, what did you do in the Corps or the Army or the Navy or the Air Force and everyone else is like, 'I'm a munitions expert' or 'I'm a pilot". I'm a meteorologist," she said, laughing with the crowd. "See, they always do that, they laugh! But it's actually very important."
On a more serious note however, Cavender turned her remarks to her experience as a single mother in the military.
"I always worried that my son would resent me, but then I hear him say to his friends, 'My mom's a staff sergeant!' and I know he's proud of me."
She continued along the same vein after the event, saying, "Becoming a single parent as an active duty Marine was not what I had planned for myself, but just like any other Marine, whether male or female, I did not make excuses; rather I found a way to accomplish my mission, which was to continue to be a good Marine and a good mother. I heard one time that it takes a village to raise a child, and I have a whole village of Marines standing behind me. I know we will be just fine."
Senior Chief Michael W. Cook, US Navy (Ret.), spoke next, sharing stories of humanitarian efforts he had been a part of in Kyrgyzstan.
"We went to a women's prenatal clinic. They couldn't control temperatures because of cracked windows and they had lost babies the previous year."
While touring the clinic, however, team noticed that the facility's classrooms had no light fixtures. Cook and his men were curious and decided to take the issue up with the program's director.
"We asked them, 'How do you have class during the evenings?' She assured us they didn't have any classes because they didn't have any lights. So we asked them, 'Well if you had lights, would you have classes in the evening?' She said yes … so the guys pooled together their own funds and their own money and we purchased six fluorescent lights and the materials required to install the lights. The next time we went out there, we installed the lights and the electrician hooked them up."
Cook assured the audience that this was a "common occurrence," and that soldiers would frequently go above and beyond the call of duty to come to the aid of the locals.
Speaking of another project, he said, "All of the projects we did on it was 100 percent funded by the guys when they pooled their money together and Americans back home, the families and friends. There were packages arriving from California, all over Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee. They had so much stuff that they started sharing with the people in the neighborhood."
Following Cook was a musical interlude, after which Rev. Eichler came to the podium to formally recognize all the veterans in attendance, one by one. Once all 98 people were applauded individually, the ceremony moved on to the next speaker.
Chief Petty Officer Chase Hughes, who speaks professionally for the US Navy, turned his remarks to the changing environment in and around the US military.
"I was talking to a lot of people who were in wars probably before my father was born," he said. "I listen to the stories about the way things used to be and a lot of things have changed in the military. It's amazing, just a light and dark difference of what happened when I came into the Navy and what happened when people are coming into the military now. So I can only imagine how it's evolved from there. I think we're headed in the right place."
Hughes praised the military for its adaptive spirit, mentioning the contrast between it and other parts of the government. Other parts of the government, he said, are "holding on to that thing, they're sticking with what works. Imagine if we did that with the military."
The event was closed with music and the retiring of the colors and lunch was served across the parking lot in the Magnolia Community Center. Hamburgers and hot dogs were served to the general public, while a meal of grilled steak was offered to the veterans and their spouses. In the line to be served, there was no shortage of jokes about military chow lines.
During the meal, the veterans in attendance could be heard exchanging stories about their service. Some of the faces were solemn, speaking in low tones or not speaking at all, but the overall tone was far more jovial. The camaraderie between servicemen was evident as they swapped stories about everything from overbearing drill sergeants to beautiful women they had met overseas.
One man interviewed by the Tribune, Ben Mock, even spoke about how he had met "that little redheaded kid from Andy Griffith, you know, Opie," who was played by celebrity Ron Howard, now famous for his directorial work.
Mock served in the period between 1960 and 1963, the height of the Cold War, in an Army training facility in California. He distinctly remembered the panicked atmosphere of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
"I got shots for Cuba," he said, referring to the mandatory vaccinations required for personnel preparing to be shipped overseas. "We were on full 24-hour alert. We were ready."
The pictures of veterans displayed along the walls of the community center watched the din of conversation die down as attendees gradually left the premises, having had their fill of good food and old stories.
The Magnolia Historical Society's Veteran's Day celebration was a resounding success, celebrating, in the words of Staff Sgt. Jessica Carver "All those who have written a check out to America for an amount including, but not limited to, their lives."