DeRidder, La. " A Soldier’s job description can involve running for miles with rucksacks, training in every kind of weather, successfully accomplishing their mission and putting themselves in harm’s way for a greater cause. How do you thank a Soldier for that level of dedication and sacrifice?
One of the simplest ways is to walk up, shake hands and say “Thank You.”
But somehow those fleeting, yet heartfelt words don’t seem enough. To turn gratitude into something more permanent, the city of DeRidder hosted the first Southwest Louisiana All Veterans’ Reunion May 21-22.
The theme of the two-day event was to honor those who have served and continue to serve the country.
Veterans, Family members and the community began arriving for the opening ceremony on a sunny May 21 morning at the War Memorial Civic Center in DeRidder. This historic location, believed to be the first United Service Organization in the country, seemed the perfect place to bring the past and present together. Folks strolled through the center admiring displays of memorabilia from campaigns past, as well as the latest equipment found in the hands of Soldiers on the battlefield today.
Staff Sgt. Charles Ford, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, manned a display featuring the new multicam uniform design. He said he enjoyed talking with the veterans that came by to ask questions about the new uniforms. “I love the Army. When I see these veterans, I think of the American flag and all they fought for. It makes me so proud. I’m trying to do my part in that tradition of service and become a part of history,” said Ford.
After looking around, guests stepped outside as the opening ceremony began. DeRidder Mayor Ron Roberts welcomed everyone.
“This is indeed a proud day. We are happy to honor all members, past and present, of the military and want you to know how deeply we appreciate you,” said Roberts. He went on to explain the hard work and preparation leading up to the culmination of this day with the hopes that the All Veterans’ Reunion will become and annual celebration that continues to grow.
Guest speaker for the opening ceremony was retired Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore’.
He spoke of the great price of freedom paid by veterans.
“We are here to honor veterans because they and those who have followed continue to do their duty to save our nation. The men who wear our nation’s uniform in all branches of service represent our country and try to bring freedom to the rest of the world. We must remember the sacrifices of those who have fought to keep this nation free and continue to be a beacon of freedom to the rest of the world,” said Honore’.
Honore’ said to live free is a privilege, one paid for by generations past.
“To live free is an obligation. It’s a check that every generation needs to be prepared to pay by sending the most precious thing they’ve got, our sons and daughters, to the rest of the world to secure our freedom and the freedom,” he said.
Honore’ also had the distinction of being grand marshal in the parade that ended in downtown DeRidder. What followed was a day filled with a festival atmosphere, live performances and more.
The highlight of the day’s events was the dedication of Veterans’ Park.
Roberts explained how the park came to be and said that Louisiana Senator John Smith played a fundamental role in making it a reality.
Smith said that being part of the day filled him with thoughts of what veterans stand for: Patriotism, sacrifice, pride, respect, compassion and today " celebration. “After hearing the mayor’s vision for this land, I was determined to provide whatever funds were needed to complete this park. It forever memorializes veterans as patriots and warriors. Thank you for protecting our country,” said Smith.
Brig. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, Joint Readiness Training Center and Fort Polk commanding general, then addressed the audience.
He began by thanking Roberts on behalf of all the veterans and men and women in uniform for hosting the first ever Southwest Louisiana All Veterans’ Reunion. “The entire day has been outstanding and an unforgettable tribute to veterans,” said Chinn. He said that people would visit this park year after year with their children and grandchildren and remember the service and sacrifice of the brave veterans who have protected the freedoms enjoyed today.
As a tribute to the veterans in the crowd, Chinn requested that the Soldiers who fought in each conflict from WWII through today’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stand in turn and receive a round of applause.
“Veterans who served for the cause of liberty stepped forward when America called, fought for what was right in the hedgerows of Normandy, along the 38th parallel in Korea, in the jungles of Vietnam and today in Iraq and Afghanistan. They didn’t march to these foreign shores with notions of glory. Conquest was never their goal. They went ashore with the notion that people of all nations have a right to live in a world free of tyranny. They fought with the conviction that some principles in life are worth dying for. Despite what has changed in this country 235 years later, those convictions have remained the same,” said Chinn.
With anticipation on the rise of the unveiling of the park’s monument, Chinn explained that people must always remember what’s most important to Americans " security and freedom. “You can rest assured our military is preserving that security. All of us stake a claim of continued freedom in the future. Remember too that somewhere on any given day and time, an American Soldier is on patrol. So, it’s fitting that everyone is here today " Soldier, Sailor, Marine, Airmen and Coast Guard of the past, present and future " to dedicate this Veterans’ Park. You create a bridge of history with conviction of duty and love of country. Thank you, veterans, for your service, sacrifices, loyalty and the example you’ve set for those who will follow in your footsteps. This monument we dedicate today belongs to you,” said Chinn.
As the audience circled the monument, dignitaries moved into position and pulled the rope that removed the black cloth covering the statue of an infantryman ready for battle.
Larry E. Bledsoe attended the dedication. He was part of the 82nd Airborne Division during the Vietnam War. “This event is one of the greatest things that has happened in my life. I’m a Vietnam veteran and we weren’t respected when we came home. The flag means everything to me, then and now. I thank God and America for this recognition,” said Bledsoe.
Retired Maj. George C. Thompson, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, attended the dedication and was called upon to help unveil the statue at Veteran’s Park. He was visibly moved as he tried to explain how much this event meant to him. “This is a real a tear-jerker. It’s wonderful to realize that we’re still being recognized for our service, not just World War II veterans, but Soldiers from all the other wars as well. I would love to see this event grow,” said Thompson.
Another part of the All Veterans’ Reunion schedule of events included an oath of enlistment for future service men and women. One of the newly minted Soldiers is Dakota Strayhan. As he looked at the living history surrounding him in the form of veterans from conflicts since WWII, Dakota said that he was proud to become a Soldier. “It’s a family tradition to serve in the military, but the main reason I wanted to sign up is to know I’m doing something important,” said Strayhan. “You look at veterans today and you don’t see any regrets about their service. They are proud and happy about what they have done.”
The idea of going to war doesn’t scare Strayhan because he said he knows he’s doing his part to help people in this country and around the world be free.
At 16, Strayhan had to get permission to join the Army. He heads to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. this summer for basic training.
The continuation of service Honore’ and Chinn spoke of seems to come full circle in this young man who has volunteered his service to sustain freedom.

Page last updated Fri June 3rd, 2011 at 00:00