Ezra Burden and Mike Lea share a common bond that brought them to the tiny park behind Lane Regional Medical Center.
They are strangers who both came to reflect, meet new friends and say “you are welcome” to anyone applauding their service.
Burden is a resident of Baker who spent 26 years in the U.S. Army and the Army Reserves. The years haven’t been full of thank-you greetings and applause. His commitment to the military was questioned, and he was often ridiculed by many close to him for serving nearly three decades. He attended the Bank of Zachary's Veterans Day event Monday, but it won’t be his last. He planned to visit others and take in all that he can.
“It is good to be appreciated,” he said. “I make it a point (to attend multiple programs), and I’ve been doing that as long as I can remember. I sacrificed, and I appreciate people taking the time out to tell us that they appreciate us. I was drafted, but I made the best of it, and I’m not disappointed that I went.”
Mike Lea, a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, beamed with pride next to the brick that bears his name on a wall of honor. He shared his Veterans Day pride with his daughter Amy Lea. “It was a good experience,” he said. “It helped to grow me up.”
Lea reflects on a sacrifice and a heavy price that was not his own. He survived nearly daily bombing over Saigon, but back home, his family — especially his mother — lived in fear of losing him. “Years after I got back, she told me the worse year of her life was when I was in Vietnam,” he said.
Part of Lea’s duties was to load bodies on massive aircrafts for mass funerals. “All I could think of was the wives and mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers who would never see their loved one again,” he said. “It was a hard time.”
The bank has spent more than a decade honoring all the Burdens and Leas of the region and leaving little doubt that their service is both noted and appreciated by hosting the Veterans Day Flag Raising Ceremony. Preston Kennedy, former bank president, thanked Lane Regional Medical Center for providing land for the Regional Veterans Park to be placed on its campus.
“The Bank of Zachary has been on Main Street since 1904, and we have seen a lot of things come together,” Kennedy said. “Our community has been sustained by lots of local businesses just like ours, and our schools have been named the top school district in Louisiana for the 15th year. All of that was made possible because of men and women who protect our freedoms and our rights every day."
Kennedy reminded the crowd that each moment of military sacrifice was noted with a response from the Zachary community.
“Not too much longer after the city of Zachary was formed in 1889, the USS Maine blew up in (Cuba’s) Havana Harbor, and Zachary boys marched off to go help defend the United States,” he said, also making note of subsequent military action documented at the town train depot when local soldiers left to fight in the world wars, Korea, Vietnam and more.
A “local boy who answered the call” was the event speaker. Chad Felps, a Marine veteran and recipient of the Purple Heart, spoke of his Zachary roots honoring the community’s veterans before he found himself in uniform.
He acknowledged the group of Marines who saved his life in armed combat in Afghanistan as the reason he was able to be standing back in his hometown. “I don’t take life for granted, and I proudly served with some real heroes,” he said. “Heroes are the ones that dedicate their life to the very fabric of our freedom.”
Because the previous day marked the 244th birth of the U.S. Marine Corps, Felps asked his Marine brothers to stand and share in a hero’s acknowledgment.
Felps recalled the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. He was a ZHS 10th grader who had skipped school. He took an observer’s view as his country was attacked and the twin towers collapsed in New York.
“There was no doubt what I was going to do after the fact,” he said. “I knew what I was going to do and what branch of service I wanted to go into.”
Felps was deployed to Afghanistan in 2004 and gained a great appreciation for his Marine brothers and for the freedoms that Americans often take for granted.
“In my early 20s, I realized what it was like to be in a country where people had never experienced what freedom was,” he said. “We often confuse what freedom is with things of our own opinion, like what happens when you break the law.
"I realized in my early 20s, that I had never lived a day without it," Felps said. “I challenge you to really know what freedom is — what your individual pursuit of happiness really is.”
Veterans paid the price to guarantee these rights and freedoms, but Felps implored the crowd to not forget their sacrifices and the horrors that don’t end when a veteran comes home. Americans must not look away at the realization that 60,000 veterans have committed suicide in the last decade alone, he said.
“The common number that we use is 22 a day, and I want you to think about that for a second,” he said. “Men of this caliber of the military should not have to get out the military and go through the dreads of life to find a direction.”
His voice cracked and the crowd grew very silent as Felps described the lost and forgotten soldiers who survive combat only to die at their own hands.
“As individuals, we play a key role in people’s lives and all it takes is a simple gesture — things that our country was founded upon like ‘yes, sir; yes, ma’am; God love ya,” he said. “God bless America; I’m glad to be an American. If you are not, you need to recheck yourself.”