Obama, area officials mark Veterans Day

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a former Tuskegee Airman named Major Louis Anderson as a former major named Louis Anderson. Major is his first name; he was a private. This version has been updated.

At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, people across the Washington region paused Monday to remember those who have served in the name of their country.

In a commemoration that grew out of the horrors of World War I, people gathered at the time and date of the 1918 armistice that ended the “Great War” to pay tribute to veterans of all the nation’s conflicts.

At the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the African American Civil War Memorial and dozens of other places, people assembled to remember on Veterans Day.

Bells tolled, guns boomed in salute and the notes of taps echoed in honor of those who President Obama said have “fought for our freedom and stood sentry for our security.”

“On this hillside of solemn remembrance and in veterans’ halls and in proud parades across America, we join as one people to honor a debt we can never fully repay,” the president said near the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

After laying a wreath at Arlington Cemetery, the president honored American service members for what he called, "a debt we can never fully repay." (The Washington Post)

Before introducing 107-year-old World War II veteran Richard Overton, Obama said: “After every conflict, there is a risk that the devoted service of our veterans could fade from the forefront of our minds, that we might turn to other things. But part of the reason we’re here today is to pledge that we will never forget the profound sacrifices that are made in our name.”

Obama spoke after placing a memorial wreath at the tomb minutes after 11 a.m.

To the sounds of a 21-gun artillery salute, the president was joined in the ceremony by Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marine honor guards, as well as Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki and others.

Monday’s ceremony at Arlington Cemetery came nine months before the start of the centennial of World War I, which ran from July 1914 to November 1918 and killed an estimated 16 million people.

Obama arrived at the massive white marble tomb on a chilly but sunny fall morning.

Against the backdrop of the pillared entrance to the cemetery’s amphitheater, and with the Washington Monument and the dome of the Capitol in the distance, he placed the wreath of red and white flowers, then bowed his head.

The quiet was broken only by the calls of birds, water flowing in a nearby fountain and the sharp commands to the honor guards.

A small crowd of tourists, VIPs and aging veterans was jammed into the viewing area, while black-clad security officers paced the roof of the amphitheater entrance.

The brief ceremony was followed by the playing of muffled drums and the sounding of taps by Army Master Sgt. Allyn H. Van Patten.

In the District, officials also marked Veterans Day with a wreath-laying — and a political statement.

Outside the U Street Metro station, a crowd of more than 50 bundled-up onlookers watched as Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) carried a wreath of white lilies, daisies and other blooms to the African American Civil War Memorial.

While the ceremony honored the Tuskegee Airmen, pioneering World War II African American aviators, the District’s fight for representation was not far from the day’s conversation.

It was the first time Gray and Norton had visited the memorial on Veterans Day, and it quickly became a rally for full federal representation.

“Today, I urge everyone to join Congresswoman Norton, Mayor Vincent Gray and our city council members in the fight for full rights for the residents of the District of Columbia,” Major Louis Anderson, a D.C. resident who was a former member of the Tuskegee Airmen, told the crowd after it had moved indoors to the African American Civil War Museum.

Dressed in red jackets, with yellow roses in their coat pockets, Anderson and William Fauntroy Jr. were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal for their service with the Tuskegee Airmen as members of ground crews.

Anderson, 88, was born in Jacksonville, Fla., and has been a D.C. resident since attending Howard University.

Fauntroy has lived in the city his whole life. He listed every public school he attended, including Armstrong Manual Training High School, as the crowd murmured in recognition. He credited Armstrong’s annual drill competitions for inspiring him to be a good soldier.

Fauntroy, 87, talked as much about his military service as he did about his role as the first black engineer with the National Capital Transportation Agency, Metro’s predecessor. “I was responsible for the U Street station,” he said. “I saved Lincoln Theatre and Ben’s Chili.”

Gray and Norton echoed the calls for D.C. representation. Gray said that, while today’s struggle for representation and statehood may not be the racism Fauntroy and Anderson faced, the principles are no different.

“Free D.C. needs to be more than a slogan,” he said.

“They went to war for democracy having never known it,” Norton said of the two men beside her on the stage. “Those from the District of Columbia have literally never known it.”

In College Park, Mike Duggan, a 77-year-old Vietnam War veteran, implored those at a Veterans Day ceremony: “Don’t forget veterans. This is not just a day about department store sales or picnics or a good meal or even getting together.

“It is a blessed holiday,” he added. “Put the flag out and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ Just one American to another one.”

Duggan, a Bethesda resident, was wounded in Vietnam and said he still suffers from what he calls “the invisible scars of war.”

“Fifty years after the war, there’s still some of it left,” he said. “It’s not only the scars I have all across my shoulders from having been hit by shrapnel . . . but it’s also right up here, too,” he said, pointing to his head.

Duggan said the best cure for post-traumatic stress disorder is to hear the words “Thank you for your service” from someone.

“As simple as it may sound,” he said, “that’s the message, and that works.”

After the ceremony, a 25-year-old Marine veteran, Tyler Owens of Greenbelt, came up to Duggan. They grabbed each other as if they were old friends and in unison shouted, “Rah,” a shortened version of a Marine battle cry.

Owens said that he had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and that he, too, suffers from post-
traumatic stress disorder.

“Today is a day to remember our friends and family,” Owens said. “Freedom isn’t free — it comes with a sacrifice. My buddies that didn’t make it — that’s our sacrifice.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
Victoria St. Martin covers breaking news and Prince William County for The Post's Local desk.
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