About 200 people, most of them military retirees, took time out of their Friday to attend a beautiful ceremony at the Veterans Wall at Rock Hill’s Glencairn Garden park.
There was posting of flags for each branch of service by the Rock Hill High School Jr. ROTC, music and applause.
There were speeches on this Veterans Day weekend, with the most elegant and powerful by an American Legion member, a military veteran, named Craig Charlton.
He spoke about how wars are “tragic” and “terrible.” He used the word “peace” over and over. Peace is what Veterans Day, in 1918, started to honor, Charlton reminded the crowd. The armistice, the peace, after the horrors of World War I.
A kindergarten class from Kiddie Kollege Child Development Center recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and those little kids were joined by the crowd. Old men, some with spouses, said the words with hands over their hearts.
That crowd included people who lost fingers in wars, parts of legs, and countless friends in those wars.
In the front row stood Buck Schwing, who for four decades has run the American Legion baseball program while limping on a foot and leg and body that was almost destroyed in Vietnam.
Guys like Schwing came back home and spend the rest of their lives trying to help others out.
In the middle of the crowd, in the back row of seats, two guys wearing ball caps that signify combat veterans seemed to stand out. In their silent pride, the salutes during “Taps” and the National Anthem, and their downcast eyes every time the word death came up.
Eddie Knight, 71, stood almost the whole time, using a cane fashioned out of an old hand-saw handle. Knight managed a Winn-Dixie grocery store most of his adult life.
But before all that, he was drafted into the Army and went to Vietnam. Knight was there, in a combat artillery unit, for all of 1967.
He saw so much death, was part of so much death in war, he killed so much and so many, that it never escaped him.
“One time I had to climb up a pole in the middle of a patch of ground to put a camera on top of it, and there were bodies of our soldiers stacked all around it,” said Knight.
Knight is a soft-spoken gentle man who, after he came back from Vietnam, had to hitchhike home from the bus station to start his life.
“You never get over how terrible war is,” said Knight.
Next to Knight during that ceremony stood a guy who was drafted off a Fort Lawn farm in rural Chester County named Jim Gladden. He spent a year in Vietnam, in infantry and then reconnaissance. His whole life was blood and death.
“I get off the plane at an air base and I see the body bags stacked up, our guys, high as that wall there” Gladden said, pointing at the Veterans Wall. “That’s the war you see when you get there. And then you have to do it yourself.”
What Gladden had to do is kill people. That is what wars are.
“I come off the farm, a family where I was taught to respect life, to love people, and I go into the Army and every day it is kill people or get killed yourself,” said Gladden. “I had a 28-inch waist and I weighed 120 pounds.
“I think it was because I was so skinny that maybe they couldn’t see me, that I didn’t get shot and killed like so many of those guys I knew who got killed.”
Somehow these two guys lived through that war. They listened to Charlton as he spoke of how peace, not war, is the goal of the military and the hope of any veteran who ever had to kill and watch others die.
“You get past what you had to do in that war, but you never get over it,” said Gladden.
When the service was over, these two fathers and grandfathers, Eddie Knight and Jim Gladden, lingered and talked. Both walked away, ready to go home, after a memorial service about service in wars.
Both knew the service was a hopeful prayer that no young man would ever have to do what they had to do all those years ago, in a war fought for peace.