On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, about 160 veterans and community members in Soldotna continued a tradition that began 96 years ago – to remember and honor veterans.
Members of the Soldotna Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 10046 started the Veterans Day ceremony Tuesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex with the posting of the colors. As the flags were brought into the room, the audience stood and saluted the U.S. flag before the silence was broken with the Pledge of Allegiance.
The program continued with the singing of the National Anthem and a brief history of Veteran’s Day, which started as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War I in 1918.
Soldotna resident and VFW member Herb Stettler recited Lt. Col. John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields,” while members of the audience placed poppies down as a symbol of remembrance of World War I. The ceremony concluded with a 21-gun salute, playing of taps and a closing benediction.
Navy veteran Preston “Nick” Nelson, Commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, recognized the audience for coming out in support of those that have served in the U.S. Armed Forces.
Nelson said Alaska has the largest veteran population per capita with about 77,000 veterans. He said the families of soldiers should be recognized for their support.
“To me we have 230,000 veterans,” he said. “Mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters who’ve all experienced anguish while their sons and daughter are overseas in the combat zone. I think about them everyday. To me they are my heroes too.”
The Purple Heart fraternal organization helps veterans in the community and their families get the care they need, he said.
“I’m out of uniform now, but I’m still serving my country when I help my veterans,” Nelson said. “That’s what I enjoy doing.”
Guest speaker Col. Jim Holliday said every veteran has a story to tell. Holliday attended the veterans celebration at the Kenai Senior Center Monday.
“I was amazed by some of the stories men and women had,” Holliday said. “All ordinary Americans compelled by events across the world to do extraordinary things.”
Kenai resident Dave Thompson, who fought in the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1970, was one of five brothers who served in the U.S. Army and all came back home alive.
Thompson worked in a transportation outfit that supplied bases and landing zones. He said he traveled through enemy territory in convoy supply trucks and worked long hours to complete dangerous missions.
“It’s unbelievable the work grunts have to do,” he said. “We really didn’t know what was going on. You might have to sleep in a ditch under your truck for three days to keep yourself alive from incoming rounds.”
The reason he decided to put on the uniform came shortly after his best friend was killed in combat.
“It’s tough to think about sometimes,” Thompson said holding back tears. “A lot of good men died over there. Some 58,000. What inspired me to go into the Army was, not only all my brothers wearing a uniform, but my close friend in high school was killed in Vietnam.”
Thompson said Veterans Day is important to him because it is a time to reflect on those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure freedom.
“I think the younger generation today needs to remember where everything came from all the way back to the Revolutionary War,” Thompson said. “A lot of young people today don’t really appreciate where their freedoms come from.”
Thompson and his wife Katty Thompson attended the veterans celebration Monday at the Kenai Senior Center. More than 150 community members gathered for an evening event that included a potluck dinner, patriotic concert performed by the Mountain View Elementary School choir and a live radio broadcast. Radio host Duane Bannock interviewed eight veterans who talked about their military service experience.
One of those interviewed was Kenai resident Mary Quensel, 93, who worked as a U.S. Army Nurse during World War II. Quensel spent a month stationed in Tinian, one of three islands of the Northern Marianas controlled by Japanese forces until it was seized by the United States and used as an air base during the tail end of the war.
Quensel was sent to Tinian to be a nurse for a new hospital. Two weeks after she arrived on Aug. 6, 1945, the Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.
“One morning I awoke to air raid sirens,” she said. “It took us a week to find out what happened. The bomb dropped and soon after the war was over. The hospital we were preparing never opened its doors.”
Quensel said her life after the war was more interesting when she met her husband in Venezuela before they moved to Kenai in 1968 and raised five kids. She said she celebrate Veterans Day every year and enjoys hearing stories from other veterans.
Carol Bannock, activities coordinator for the Kenai Senior Center, said listening to the stories from seniors inspired her to organize the event to salute the veterans.
“Anytime we can get the older generation to mingle with the younger generation it’s positive,” she said. “There is so much we can learn from people that frequent this building every day.”
Students from the Mountain View Choir, under the direction of music teacher Jonathan Dillon, performed four patriotic songs, including, “America the Beautiful” and “This land is your land.”
Fourth-grader Bianca Hansen, 10, said it was a “cool experience” to perform at the senior center. Hansen, who moved to Alaska from Montana two months ago, said she joined the choir group because her previous school didn’t have one.
“I though it would be something fun for me to do,” she said. “I think it’s really fun to be here and meet new people.”
Mountain View Elementary School principal Karl Kircher said they like to get students out in the community as much as possible. Dillon was already practicing songs for Veterans Day with students and contacted the senior center to be involved.
“We’re always looking for ways to get students out in the community and the community into our school,” Kircher said. “Seniors come in and read to the kids. It’s a natural fit to mingle little kids and older citizens.”
Thompson said his military service has shaped who he is today and believes more young people would benefit from the experience gained from service to the country.
“Sometimes I wonder why all young fellas in the country don’t serve two years,” he said. “I think it would do the country a lot of good and our country would be a better place.”