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Very soon, go talk to a veteran

his or her story will be a blessing

November 11, 2007|By MARIE LANSER BECK

"Old soldiers never die, they just ..."

That's exactly what is happening. Our oldest soldiers and those who wore the uniform of other services are fading away. Ever fewer who can rightfully claim to be members of "The Greatest Generation" appear at the annual Veterans Day commemorations. The ones who attend, some wearing with pride the original jackets to their faded uniforms, like Washington County's Les Hart, an 89-year-old 10th Mountain Division veteran, stand at attention and belt out the words of "The Star Spangled Banner" with a gusto seldom seen in younger generations who struggle to recall the words.

Their ranks may be diminished, but their spirit is not. This past Tuesday's Hagerstown Lions Club meeting at Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 was a grand example of patriotism, remembered valor and heartfelt loss. More than 100 gathered for the noontime program honoring veterans, a fivefold increase over attendance at the regular weekly gatherings, according to Korean War veteran and Lions Club member Robert Vanlaningham.

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More than 25 veterans, men and women, of World War II, half a dozen Korean War, Vietnam and Cold War veterans rose to their feet when their era was hailed. Three in attendance stood in response to a call for Gulf War veterans. And the same number acknowledged their service in the current conflict in Iraq, including two spit-and-polished Marines, resplendent in their handsome uniforms, who sat at the head table.

Lions Club member and retired Hagerstown attorney Jacob "Jack" Berkson, a Navy veteran who served in both WWII and the Korean War, took charge of the program.

"Veterans Day is not just for speeches at the courthouse," Berkson said, remarking "how necessary it is to set aside a day in the year to shake the hands of veterans and express thanks" for their service.

He yielded the podium to Marine Corps Sgt. Charles G. Dane, assigned to the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion based in Frederick, Md., who has been in the Marines for eight years and recently returned from Iraq. Dane, far more comfortable at attention than in front of a microphone, said he wasn't really prepared to give a speech.

"I thought all I had to do was show up and look pretty. When I was asked to say a few words, I wondered what I would say to the generation that could have taught my father how to ride a bicycle." The aging veterans responded with good-natured groans.

In addressing the current conflict in Iraq, Dane said, "I bring to you confidence that the example you have given has been remembered. We are getting it done."

He assured those assembled that the Marines are experiencing success in Iraq's Anbar province, where he saw duty. According to Dane, the region has experienced an 80 percent decrease in insurgent attacks, with attacks previously numbering as many as a dozen a day diminishing to three or four a day. "No one told me to say that," he told the group.

"Americans have stepped forward and endured the horrors so that others at home would not have to. This has fallen to the soldiers, seamen, Coast Guard, Air Force and Marines," said Dane, recalling the sacrifices of those who fought and died "in places like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, Chosin and Hue City."

"I cannot express what an honor it has been for me to be here today," Dane said in closing. "You thank me for what I do, but I thank you for what you have done."

Despite the nearly full room, there were reminders of "empty chairs at empty tables," as Berkson dedicated the program to the late Ralph Wallace of Hagerstown, a WWII Army Air Corps veteran and a well-known business and civic leader in Hagerstown, who died Oct. 30, 2005. Among his many achievements was perfect attendance at Lions Club meetings for 50 years or so.

Col. Clyde J. Tate, who had organized many a previous Lions Club veterans program, was the next speaker. Dressed in camouflage fatigues and beret, Tate spoke of his 35 1/2 year Army career, with assignments in Alaska, Korea, Germany and two tours in Vietnam.

"I served proudly," said Tate, who acknowledged that he did not fight just for his country, or the flag. In echoing Berkson's assertion that "we are a band of brothers," Tate said, "I fought for the fellows around me and they fought for me."

While Berkson and 13 others rearranged seats to re-create a comic radio sketch Berkson had written years ago, revolving around the sale of a Heiskelite, (Hagerstown High's yearbook) ad to Pangborn Industries in 1943, song leader and Navy veteran Richard L. "Dick" Hershey led the group in rousing renditions of each of the armed service's songs. Sailors, soldiers, airmen, Coast Guardsmen and Marines were asked to stand when the familiar words of their service anthems were sung. The voices were strong and the pride palpable, but the numbers were small.

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