RICHLANDS, Va. — Southwest Virginia’s pride and patriotism was showing Saturday afternoon as several hundred people braved a chilly, overcast day to honor veterans and dedicate a new “Memorial Walkway” in front of the Richlands Veterans Memorial.

“You are all a living memorial because you’re here today,” Brigadier General Stephen Arey (Virginia Army National Guard retired) said. The crowd that gathered for the event swelled to an estimated 350 people. “It touches all of us who served. I appreciate every one of you for being here today.”

Arey talked about the special spirit of camaraderie that comes from serving in the military, and of how military training “breeds a sense of honor that is in all service men and women.” He said that soldiers learn to “look after your buddy” in times. He said that seeing an out-pouring of support on a cool, damp day in Richlands is “absolutely wonderful.”

Arey started his career in the U.S. Army in 1969. “I can remember being told not to wear my uniform on leave,” he said. “That was during the Vietnam War. Protesters were out in the streets and we soldiers got spit on. We still have negative press today (with American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq), but the soldier is appreciated,” Arey said.

Command Master Sgt. Earl Griffith, U.S. Army, Virginia National Guard retired, introduced Arey. During their remarks, both men mentioned the strength of the Richlands High School JROTC program. Several cadets stood in parade formation during the 45-minute service, two cadets, Cadet 2nd Lt. Andy Robinson and Cadet 2nd Lt. Houston Wyatt walked a precision close-order ceremonial guard detail in front of the Veterans Memorial throughout the service. The JROTC Color Guard raised the American flag and all the service flag at the memorial.

“There’s our future right over there,” Arey said pointing to both the JROTC cadets and the RHS Band. “They’re standing tall.” Master Sgt. Bradley Thayer presented plaques of appreciation to both Arey and Griffith as part of the service.

“What I want to talk to you about is being an American,” Griffith said. “We need to act like it. From what I see on the television news, our country’s falling apart. We need to act like Americans. I’m proud to be an American.”

Griffith, who earned a Bronze Star Medal in Vietnam as well as another Bronze Star medal in the Persian Gulf War, expressed his personal pride in the community. “I love the military,” he said. “They’re the ones that take care of this country.”

Jim Boyd, a U.S. Marine, served as master of ceremonies for the event. He expressed appreciation for all the work that went into displaying American flags throughout the community. “Events like this just don’t happen,” he said. He mentioned the eight members of the Veterans Memorial Walkway Committee including Pete Vance, chair, Mike Hickman, Bob Nassif, Master Sgt. Thayer, Ginger Branton, Lynna Mitchell, James Pruitt and Brian Wright.

Richlands Mayor Kenneth Wysor expressed his appreciation to the audience. “It does my heart good to see so many people out today to support our veterans,” he said.

Boyd said that Pete Vance told him he was more frightened to speak to the crowd in Richlands than he was when he served in Vietnam. “Pete received two Distinguished Flying Cross medals,” Boyd said. “He wouldn’t tell you that, but I will.”

As he began his remarks, Vance was saved by the bell — both literally and figuratively. A single Norfolk Southern diesel locomotive crossed the Front Street grade crossing twice, sounding its horn and bell as required. Vance paused on the locomotive’s first pass, and when the horn sound stopped he said: “I’m finished.”

Vance resumed his remarks before the locomotive came back. “Thank you for protecting and preserving our freedom and the American way of life,” Vance said. “To all veterans, we say thanks.”

“It’s good to see that Norfolk Southern’s supportive of our efforts here,” Boyd said, as he resumed the podium.

Thayer narrated the flag retirement ceremony as cadets with the JROTC conducted the ceremony. The VFW Post 9640 Honor Guard fired a 21-round salute and Jonathon Deel played “Taps” on his bell front baritone.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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