Sgt. 1st class Scott Edgell performs the POW/MIA ceremony during Veterans’ Appreciation Day at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building Sunday in Fayetteville.

Dozens of free Americans braved the chilly winds of November to pay tribute and homage Sunday to our nation’s precious military veterans.

Fayetteville’s 11th annual Veterans’ Appreciation Day placed a special emphasis on America’s World War II veterans.

Described by longtime NBC news anchor and best-selling author Tom Brokaw as among “The Greatest Generation,” these fleeting souls now number 2.4 million among the living, declared Fayette County Circuit Judge John Hatcher, and they are departing this world at an average daily rate of 1,500. The war itself claimed the lives of 292,000.

Hatcher, himself a Vietnam War veteran, called Sunday’s event a “very patriotic program — a program of honor.” He applauded all 48 million veterans, past and present, for the “immeasurable service and noble jobs” they have performed.

“It is the solemn obligation of each of us today to show that we are proud people. We need to make certain that our government never forgets our veterans,” Hatcher insisted. Following a roof-raising rendition of the National Anthem by the Rev. Robert Morey, of Fayetteville Christ Fellowship, Hatcher asked the crowd if they could ever hear that stirring melody without having “a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.”

In remembrance of America’s 88,000 declared Missing In Action or Prisoner of War, a lone table with an empty chair was assembled on stage at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Building. A narrator explained its rich and somber symbolism — a white tablecloth for purity, a single rose for those who keep faith and await the return of their missing loved one, a lemon representing the bitter fate that is ours if we don’t remember them, and salt for the tears shed on behalf of the lost.

Fayette County Circuit Judge Paul Blake and Fayetteville Mayor Jim Akers — both military veterans — took turns reading letters written to Brokaw by two World War II veterans. Blake read from a letter written by Robert Cormer, and Akers recited a letter composed about a man’s “Uncle Art,” a B-17 bombardier over Europe who is now buried overlooking Omaha Beach in France.

Veteran John Nauta read aloud from a 65-year-old heart-rending letter that no relative or spouse of a veteran then or now wants to receive — its opening words are, “We regret to inform you.”

Col. Ken Eskew, a Fayette county commissioner and Korean War veteran, read from remarks Brokaw made at the official dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. — “Gen. Kelly rightly called World War II the greatest war ever known. A war during which more than 50 million people perished in their homes and on the battlefields a long way from home; in infernos at sea and beneath the sea and planes falling from the sky; the gas ovens and in slave labor camps. A war that for all its cruelties and terrible cost was a just war and a great victory that will be remembered for as long as history is recorded. So it is fitting that we honor you today — your lives and how much you lived them, the country you defended, loved and cared for the rest of your days; that is the undeniable legacy of you, the men and women that I call ‘The Greatest Generation.’”

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