A few weeks ago, a retired colonel from the United States Army asked if a group of my friends and I would perform a military ceremony for a group of veterans this past Friday – Veterans Day. This man had never met me, nor had he met my friends before that day’s event.
How did he know to ask us, and why did he ask us?
My friends and I are part of an organization called Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the official auxiliary of the United States Air Force (USAF). We are volunteers between the ages of 12 and 21, and we are called “cadets.” As cadets, we train vigorously in USAF drill (marching), traditions, customs, and courtesies and in flying aircraft and serving on Search and Rescue missions. We are not active duty military, but rather volunteer civilians who try to give the best possible to our communities, states, and nation. My local friends and I are from a CAP unit called the “Lynchburg Composite Squadron”, located in Lynchburg, Virginia, but there are units all over the United States.
Our unit was requested by a U.S. Army, retired, Colonel to perform two parts of a military ceremony on Friday at an elderly living community. Many residents in the community at which the ceremony was held are veterans. These great men and women were once active duty, and they, their families, and their friends gave sacrifices of different degrees, but they were willing and ready to give the sacrifice of the greatest degree – their life – just to make sure that you and I had a country where we could grow up with quality of life, unlike many outside of this wonderful country. These veterans had never met me or my friends, but they were willing to give their service to our country anyway. Many of these veterans served in World War II, some of them served in the Vietnam War, and still others fought in more wars, but they were all willing to give their sacrifices again and again for you and for me without being repaid.
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When we arrived at the location of Friday’s event, we got to meet the retired colonel with whom our event coordinator for our unit had conversed via email. I entered the building thinking, “I didn’t get to practice much with my team before now… what if we mess up or I lose my train of thought at the podium in front of the large crowd of veterans who dedicated their lives to serving us?” Though I was nervous about my role in the ceremony, I tried to hide it the best I could. I knew I wasn’t the only nervous participant, but I still didn’t want my team to see that I was nervous. Thankfully, we were given an hour to practice a run-through of our part of the ceremony. However, on the walk to our practice room, we kept being greeted by different residents who were interested in who we were and what our part in the ceremony would be. It was wonderful to be able to personally talk with these veterans who were more awesome and positively dedicated than many people nowadays could ever be. It was neat to hear stories of experience from them too – stories of them guarding our country in a variety of wars and stories of their parents serving in WW I. It made me really grateful for the freedoms that you and I take for granted every day and the service that those who have come before us have already given for our benefit. Eventually, we arrived at our practice room. My team and I practiced what is called the “13 Folds Flag Ceremony.”
After we had a chance to run through our performance, it was about 15 minutes until the ceremony was supposed to begin, and I had to go help one of our members change into a specialized uniform that required great attention to detail when donning. In the middle of the wardrobe change, 12 or so minutes before the event was to begin, the fire alarms for the entire complex went off. “Well, great; now this!” I thought. My buddy and I proceeded toward the closest exit and helped anyone we could on the way. After standing outside with the residents for about seven minutes, the fire alarms were silenced. Thankfully, it was a false alarm, supposedly set off by the sprinkler system, but neither that nor the crunched time-frame reduced my nervous state about performing the upcoming ceremony for the veterans.
Soon thereafter, we returned inside to the ceremony that was just about to commence. The first item on the schedule was for the local Army ROTC unit to present the colors (United States Flag and the Virginia State Flag). All those who were able, stood at attention as the color guard marched to the front of the room with our nation’s beautiful flag. There were, as you would expect, many of the veterans who were unable to stand, but I promise that, in their hearts, they were standing. Each of those veterans had fought to ensure that our country’s flag would still be ours to this day. After the flags were put at the front of the room, there was a banquet for the veterans and ceremony participants.
After the meal, one of my fellow cadets and I performed a military ceremony piece called the “Missing Man Table.” I proceeded to the podium because I would be narrating this piece as my fellow cadet displayed select items of symbolic meaning on a small round table with an empty chair at it. The items on the table were representative of the service and sacrifice that our service men and women give for us, their vulnerability as lone prisoners of war, and the uncertainty of survival for those missing in action. My job for this part was to tell everyone present about the symbolism being expressed. Part of the way through the ceremony, I could hear veterans in the audience start crying. They were crying over their loved ones who served and gave sacrifices so that we could enjoy a peaceful life today. They were crying because they were remembering the funerals of their family members who served our country in combat for you and me.
After the “Missing Man Table,” my Deputy Commander for Cadets, the officer who is in charge of all of us CAP cadets who were helping present the ceremony, went up to the podium to say a few words and introduce the rest of the cadet team who was present to finish the ceremony. As I was returning to my waiting area, as I passed by the banquet tables, I could hear many of the veterans saying “Thank you!” There they were thanking us when we were there to say “thank you!” to them. We had done nothing, yet these veterans and their families had fought for us, and if it weren’t for them, you and I wouldn’t be here today.
In just a matter of minutes, it was time for me to lead the rest of my team in our final presentation, the “13 Fold Flag Ceremony.” Once again, I marched to the front of the room and positioned myself in front of the podium. My team waited to enter until I began my script, “Have you ever noticed how the flag is folded carefully and meticulously into thirteen folds? Do you know why? Let me explain…” My team walked respectfully to the front-center of the banquet room where all members of the audience could easily observe their performance. They began by unfolding the flag from a triangle shape until it was completely unfolded.
Once the flag was unfolded, my team prepared to fold it back into its previous triangle form as I began explaining what the first fold represents. As I started explaining what the second fold means, they began to make the second fold in the flag. The bearers of this flag took every care and effort to give their full respect to the flag as they took their time to gently and precisely crease the folds to ensure the neat appearance of the flag. I explained the meaning behind the fourth fold and so on, each step pausing to let my team maintain clean and professional form in folding the flag.
Again, before we even completed our final piece of our presentation, there was more audible sobbing in the audience, and I realized more and more how meaningful this occasion was to each and every veteran there. We finished our piece of the ceremony, and the head representative for our flag bearers presented the flag to the head of the facilities who was very touched.
After my team and I left the room, the Army ROTC representatives concluded the ceremony by retiring the colors (putting them away). After the ceremony was over, we thanked the veterans for their selfless service, and we started gathering our equipment because we thought that the veterans would just want to go back to their living places. However, we were surprised when we saw many of them approaching us to thank us for what we do. Even though we had been thanking them for all they have done for us, the fact that they were thanking us seemed like the exact opposite of what should have been happening. These veterans who had made the history that you and I read about in our academics were thanking us!
Think about all that our country's wonderful veterans have done for us... Aren't they awesome?!??!
I want to thank all veterans who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States of America! If you, reader, have not yet thanked the veterans you know, please make sure to thank them this weekend for their selfless sacrifices that they have given on your and my behalf. Happy Veterans Weekend to all; please thank our veterans!
Photo Credit: LynchburgCAP PAO Lt Morgan