Military veterans turned out in force Wednesday at Veterans Day observances in Baton Rouge thanking them for their service to the country.
Frank Banta Sr., of Sunshine, was one of 59 veterans who made it to Runnels School for the school’s annual musical tribute to veterans. On Tuesday, the former Army National Guard member attended a veterans remembrance at the Math, Science and Arts Academy in St. Gabriel for his granddaughter, Mary. On Wednesday, it was time to do the same for his great-granddaughter, Alexa LaPlace, a third-grader at Runnels.
Alexa, with the help of her effusive mother, Amy Allen, presented Banta with an elaborate, multi-page thank you card addressed to “Paw Paw Frank.” Banta was a good sport, but he clearly didn’t like all the hubbub.
“No, but it makes them happy,” he shrugged.
Melissa Wilson, of Baton Rouge, is another veteran not so used to the limelight. Her stepdaughter, Cosby Harris, is also a third-grader at Runnels. Wilson served in the Louisiana Army National Guard, including a stint on active duty in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. She initially came to provide security, but the work soon turned to rebuilding flooded New Orleans.
She was touched by the many examples of personal charity she saw in the midst of such adversity.
“I learned a lot of things during that time that changed my life,” Wilson said. “I know that people are good and that they will help people.”
Charles Barbre, of Baton Rouge, was drafted to serve in Vietnam, but he avoided combat, serving the Army instead as a financial clerk. He even remembers his exact length of his service: 381 days, one hour and 10 minutes.
Barbre said he came to Runnels so his grandson, Arthur Ullo, who suffers from autism, might get a better sense of his service to the country, something the boy is at best only dimly aware of.
“I’m coming so he can see it, to personalize it,” Barbre said.
James Baecht, who retired from the Air Force after more than 22 years maintaining airplanes, attended the Runnels ceremony for his grandchildren, Dralyn and Kyler Johnson.
Baecht said he comes to veterans events so people will treat veterans with the appreciation they deserve. Baecht, of Baton Rouge, said this country has not always done that.
“You remember Vietnam? When people got off the plane, they spit on them,” Baecht recalled with disgust.
On the other side of Baton Rouge, the Old State Capitol attracted more than 200 people, many of them veterans, for its annual Veterans Day Celebration, organized by the USS Kidd Veterans Museum.
The event attracted prominent guests including Louisiana gubernatorial candidate John Bel Edwards and Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, who is running for lieutenant governor.
The keynote speaker was Mike McNaughton, who works as outreach director for the Louisiana Office of Veterans Affairs. McNaughton is best remembered for being one of the local area’s most prominent and earliest of the military injuries in the Afghanistan War. In January 2003 he stepped on a land mine, blowing off his leg from the knee down. The Denham Springs resident was soon after outfitted with a prosthetic leg and has since run several marathons and taken long bicycle trips.
McNaughton now spends his days advocating for other veterans.
He told the audience that just before speaking he’d received a call about a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, who landed in jail after being arrested for alleged drunk driving.
He said the country needs to “step it up” in caring for veterans.
“We cannot fight in other countries, come back home and fight for our benefits – fight for what we’ve earned,” said McNaughton. “It happens again and again.”
The desire to revive the camaraderie of fellow troops was cited by several veterans.
“You grow attached to your brothers,” said Dan Dawson, who spent three years in the Army National Guard and three more in the Air Force’s strategic air command.
“Whether you’re Army, Marines, Air Force and Navy, they’re all still your brothers.”
Reginald Brown, who spent 20 years in the Army before retiring as a lieutenant colonel, said the duty he felt to his fellow soldiers was his overriding concern during his service.
“We don’t do it for recognition when you are in active fighting,” said Brown, of Baton Rouge.
“When I went to (Operation) Desert Storm, it wasn’t about getting Kuwait back from the Iraqis. It was about making sure that my soldiers had the proper leadership.”