By BOB GIBBINS
Veterans Day is a time for people across the country to remember those who served in the past, or are actively involved in the military to protect U.S. values.
Parades, banquets and other events are held in Cherokee County and across the country to honor veterans, but numbers show fewer people are joining the military, and even fewer know much about the nation’s servicemen and women.
Alex Borowski, a retired Air Force sergeant and organizer of the 23rd Annual Veterans Appreciation Banquet, recalled a time when he was at an area restaurant and wearing his “Class A,” which is dress uniform. A young woman walked up to him and asked what kind of uniform he was wearing. A similar incident occurred near the same time in another city.
Borowski said 11.2 percent of the country’s population served in the military during the World War II era, but now, fewer than half a percent are in the ranks.
“Fewer and fewer are shouldering more of the burden,” he said referencing a writing by Gen. David Petraeus after the general had been accepted into the military academy.
Jim Wilson, former state senator and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, said the military was desperate for people when his father, a World War II veteran, graduated from the University of Wisconsin.
“They sent him his uniform in the mail,” Wilson told those in attendance at the banquet. “The chief took him into a bathroom and taught him how to salute. That was his training.”
Wilson, a Vietnam veteran, said the American people didn’t really understand why the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam – and the men and women there in the military didn’t understand, either.
“We saw some things no 18-, 19-year-olds should see,” he said.
The banquet is held each year just before the Veterans Day holiday. Borowski, Sheila Ratliff and Cynthia Myhre took over organization of the event after the original organizer, Chimp Robertson, left Tahlequah.
Borowski followed up Wilson’s comments by saying many people don’t understand the military, period.
“It’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “How many people recall [retired CBS newsman] Walter Cronkite telling us each evening how many men and women we lost each day in Vietnam?”
Several in attendance raised their hands, indicating they recalled Cronkite’s newscasts.
Far fewer said they recalled hearing anything about 18 U.S. military personnel being killed last week in Afghanistan.
Billie Walker, a member of the local Blue Star Mothers, said the group is currently sending care packages to 150 servicemen and women. She said the group is solely dependent on donations. Walker said the group has been given storage space to keep the items it receives for donations.
Becky Blake, a representative of Gold Star Mothers, spoke briefly about her son, Caleb Nathaniel Blake. Caleb was a twin, and he and his brother, Curtis Samuel Blake, were born on President’s Day in 1987.
She said Caleb volunteered for the U.S. Air Force after his high school graduation in 2005.
Caleb died in a collision with a bus in 2008, but Becky said she still has plenty of fond memories of him – including a time when he asked her to march with him. She said Caleb was always proud of his country and his service in the Air Force.
T.J. Spears, who has been a regular at the banquet for years, performed patriotic songs to entertain those in attendance.
State Rep. Mike Brown, D-Tahlequah, spoke briefly to give thanks to all veterans, including his father. He offered his assistance at the state capitol when needed.