Eulie Aiken’s military career spanned a total of 23 years, two wars and two branches of the Armed Forces.
“I am proud of serving my country,” the veteran of the Korean and Vietnam conflicts said Thursday. “Without that, we’d be lost.”
And that was, in part, the message at a Veterans Day ceremony held at the N.C. State Veterans Home on the campus of the W.G. (Bill) Hefner VA Medical Center.
On a gray Thursday, veterans sat beneath a white canopy shielding them from the sometimes sprinkling rain and falling leaves. They sat at tables and in wheelchairs, some wrapped in blankets to block the slight chill, many wearing hats displaying the forces in which they served.
In song and speech, they heard one message, repeated: Thank you.
“We stand on the shoulders of the men and women who have gone before us,” said Ilario Pantano, guest speaker at the ceremony and the state’s assistant secretary of veterans affairs. “Everything we have, we can thank God for and we can thank our veterans for.”
Pantano is himself a veteran. He joined the U.S. Marine Corps at age 17 and fought in the first Gulf War. He then led a scout and sniper team in support of U.N peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia.
After his service, Pantano earned a business degree and went on to start interacive media businesses until he witnessed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center, including a building where he had worked.
Pantano got an age waiver and rejoined the Marine Corps as an officer. He led an infantry platoon in the first battle for Falluja, Iraq in 2004. Since leaving the military, he has produced films, written books and given speeches to raise money for veterans’ charities and provided military commentary on several news networks.
On Thursday, Pantano spoke of a still-young nation and the debt it owes its warriors.
“Often, we have been outnumbered, outgunned, had our backs to the wall,” he said. “Only because of the courage of veterans are we free.”
He read the prayer President Franklin D. Roosevelt led the nation in on D-Day, June, 6, 1944, and he thanked the veterans in attendance and those buried in the nearby National Cemetery.
Before Pantano spoke, the veterans were treated to China Grove First Baptist Church’s handbell choir performing patriotic songs such as “God Bless America” and serenaded with “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” by the West Rowan High School chorus.
The N.C. Elks Association provides a lot of support for the State Veterans Home. Pat Russell, a representative from the N.C. Elks, said that’s not going to stop.
“The Elks made a pledge many years ago, that so long as there are veterans in our homes, we’ll never forget them,” he said. “Since 1913, we never have, and we never will.”
That’s a gratifying message for Eulie Aiken and veterans like him who sacrificed parts of their lives — some gave large parts — in service to the nation.
Aiken served in the U.S. Army from 1951 to 1959. He rejoined in 1968 and went into the Air Force after the Vietnam war ended. A policeman in both branches, he also served in France, Germany and other places.
He left the military in 1983 and says “there are no regrets.”
“I’m proud of it all,” he said.
Aiken led the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of Thursday’s ceremony and said he was glad to honor the nation’s flag and to be among those who have defended it.
“I respect it with all my heart,” he said. “Without veterans, you wouldn’t have a flag.”
Monday is Veterans Day.
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