“This is the White House calling, can you join us for a Veterans Day breakfast?” That was last Friday morning in San Diego and Veterans Day was two days away, but I didn’t hesitate to accept!
As a 23-year Navy veteran and national co-chair of OutServe-Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, I was thrilled to join leaders from four dozen veterans service organizations, military service chiefs and senior political appointees to celebrate Veterans Day with the president.
Arriving at the White House gate, we were all checked against the official guest list, quickly processed through security and whisked into the East Wing where we were greeted by uniformed military White House aides. Passing through a gourmet buffet line, we entered the east room which was arranged with seating for approximately 200 guests, and I found a seat facing the entrance so as not to miss anything! I was not disappointed because in addition to other veterans leaders I was honored to shake hands with the Honorable Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs (and former Chief of Staff of the Army) and the Honorable Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, who joined my table for breakfast.
Following breakfast we were all escorted into the adjacent room to meet President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden in a receiving line. With a firm handshake and a warm smile, President Obama thanked me for my service and I thanked him for all he had done for veterans and encouraged him to do a little more!
Our next stop was Arlington National Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknowns. After a short bus ride over the Potomac River, we all joined the audience in the amphitheater while President Obama laid a wreath at the tomb at precisely eleven o’clock on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. This time commemorates the Armistice that ended World War I. A 21-gun salute rang out across the quiet hills and a lone bugler played “Taps” in honor of our fallen heroes. The president and official party then joined us inside the amphitheater for a parade of flags by veterans groups, patriotic music, a prayer and official remarks by Shinseki and the president.
The president’s address and Veterans Day Proclamation reminded us that, “The freedoms we cherish endure because of their [veterans] service and sacrifice and our country must strive to honor our veterans by fulfilling our responsibilities to them and upholding the sacred trust we share with all who have served.”
I left the amphitheater filled with a great deal of pride, yet humbled by those who sacrificed so much more than I. In a quiet moment alone, I watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns and then veterans groups pay their respects by laying their own wreaths at the tomb. Standing high on that hill, overlooking neat rows of headstones, the Capitol and the Pentagon, was a somber reminder that our freedom is not free.
11-15-12 By Captain April Heinze, USN (Retired), Co-Chair, OS-SLDN Board of Directors |