Vets program held outdoors

Ron Burtz

It was a sunny, but brisk and breezy day for Custer School District’s unique outdoor Veterans Day Program last Wednesday at Veterans Memorial Park. Temperatures hovered in the mid-30s and the park’s flags were billowing under a steady breeze as an estimated crowd of 125 people gathered to honor veterans living and dead in the 26th annual event.
Chairs had been set up for spectators on a blocked-off section of Washington Street in front of the memorial and the high school band occupied a small section of real estate near the Mickelson Trail on the west side of the park. The high school choir and others participating in the program lined the opposite end of the memorial.
Normally the Nov. 11 observance is held at the Armory with veterans, families, friends and school children of all grades in attendance. However, due to concerns about spreading COVID-19, the 11 a.m. event was moved to the outdoor venue this year.
Many of the normal elements of the program remained, however, albeit with a few innovations and there was at least one addition that is not a usual part of the indoor ceremony: a rifle salute by the Custer Veterans Honor Guard.
As the crowd was still assembling, student council member Dustyn Fish approached the microphone to welcome participants and introduce American Legion post commander Don Hone and VFW commander Peggy White. Together the commanders led the assembly in a salute to the colors as the band played the National Anthem.
Following an invocation by Legion chaplain Paul Larson, the post commanders led those present in the pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Custer High School student body president Heidi Moore gave an opening address and introduced seniors Eli Steele and Kaitlyn Spring who would conduct the POW/MIA Empty Chair Ceremony.
The high school choir presented the song “In Flanders Fields” and the program also included video greetings from Congressman Dusty Johnson and Sen. John Thune, which were shown on a large screen TV set up in the back of a pickup.
Fish then introduced the keynote speaker for the event, Secretary Greg Whitlock of the S.D. Department of Veterans Affairs. Fish said Whitlock, a 39-year military veteran who was appointed to the post by Gov. Kristi Noem in 2019, was deployed to both Iraq and Kuwait during his time of service.
However, at the conclusion of the introduction, the uniformed person who approached the microphone was not Whitlock, but high school student Preston Drew. In his navy blue uniform as a cadet chief master sergeant in the Civil Air Patrol, Drew explained to the audience that Whitlock was unable to attend in person and had asked that his speech be delivered by a student.
In bringing Whitlock’s comments, Drew said: “We have many great veterans among us here in South Dakota, ordinary men and women who once wore the uniform and answered the call of duty for their country. When they took the uniform off, they became leaders in our communities, neighbors and colleagues.
“Not every veteran has known the full fury of battle,” Drew continued, “but most count their time in uniform among the defining experiences of their lives. The military drew out the best that was in them, instilling the highest standards of diligence, discipline and loyalty ... No matter how complicated war might be, it always comes down to the ones who fly the planes, man the ships and carry the rifles and our country’s military has left a legacy like no other fighting force ever assembled.”
Near the conclusion of the speech, Whitlock, through Drew, urged the crowd, “On this Veterans Day, let us, as President Kennedy urged, join together to honor those who made our freedom possible and let us continue to work every day of the year to provide veterans the benefits and care they so richly deserve. My request to you this Veterans Day 2020 is to find a way you can give back to our veterans, both today and into the future. Put that great South Dakota spirit for community service to work for our veterans.”
Following the speech, the band played a medley of the marches of America’s armed forces during which veterans of each branch of the military stood to be recognized as their march was played. Again using the TV screen, a video tribute to local veterans who have died in the past year was played.
At the conclusion of the tribute, the honor guard conducted its 21-gun salute, followed by the playing of TAPS by U.S. Marines veteran Joseph Jara.
A benediction was offered by Larson, after which the band played “Valor and Honor” as members of the audience came forward to take red roses for veterans, which were provided by Jenny’s Floral and placed in containers near the flag poles. The flowers were left there throughout the day for people to take to veterans who were unable to attend the ceremony. The American Legion also had roses sent to veterans in both the Monument Health nursing home and assisted living.
While elementary students were unable to attend this year’s program, they were involved in a virtual program available on the internet that afternoon. The presentation was produced by the high school video production class and included elements of the live program as well as songs recorded earlier by the grade school students, the high school band and choir.
Earlier that morning students also participated in a flag retirement ceremony at the grade school involving members of the student council and sponsored by the American Legion.

User login