Custer County veterans were honored for their service last Thursday afternoon at the Armory, as the 23rd annual Veterans Day program featured songs, readings and music aimed at celebrating the county’s bravest.
Hugh Holmes, Department of S.D. American Legion commander, guest speaker, told the crowd that 50 years ago gratitude and appreciation for military service was not as prevalent as it is today.
“Our heroes from Vietnam returned home and were discouraged from wearing their uniforms in public places,” he said, saying people spit on, swore at and called the Vietnam veterans names. They were unpopular due to policies set by elected officials, not the military, he said.
“Too often, the protestors failed to realize it is not campus educators who ensure their First Amendment rights are not violated,” Holmes said. “That was the veterans who protect the First Amendment rights for everybody.”
Holmes told the story of a pair who were sent to Vietnam: an Army nurse and a draftee who served as a combat medic.
The nurse told him she didn’t worry about the “little things” while in the theater, such as dying.
“We had so many casualties to take care of we were never bored,” she said. “Our patients came first.”
“A lot of things came first for our veterans,” Holmes said. “Country, mission, comrades.”
The combat medic was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Donald Trump. It is the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force which can be bestowed upon an individual serving in the Armed Services of the United States.
There were other combat medics in the man’s unit, but toward the end he was the last one standing and he kept pushing with his fellow soldiers after the rest of the medics had either been killed or wounded. That shows the love he had for the fellow men he served with in Vietnam, Holmes said.
“That’s what veterans do. They put others first,” he said. “Veterans Day is a day we put veterans first.”
Holmes said you don’t have to live in a military town to know veterans, as they are everywhere. Some wear shirts and hats letting people know they are veterans. Others remain anonymous, blending in with the crowd and never mentioning their service.
“With your attendance today, you show appreciation for our veterans,” Holmes told the crowd. “The people here are veterans, friends of veterans, families of veterans, coworkers of veterans and neighbors of veterans.”
Holmes said it is up to all Americans to make sure veterans feel appreciated for their service. There are many ways to acknowledge it, including walking up to a veteran, telling them thank you and shaking their hand.
Veterans Day isn’t only for acknowledging those who served in battle, Holmes said. It is a day to honor all who served, whether in peace or war, as well as acknowledge the family of veterans who also suffer when their loved ones are deployed.
“Most veterans will agree the best war is the one they never fought,” Holmes said. “But when war is necessary, the men and women come foward and always put their country first. When there is a threat, (the veterans) join together as one and meet the challenge. That’s what veterans do and continue to do. Country first.”
Two special presentations were made at the event, including Custer High School student body president Benny Wahlstrom presenting Custer Veterans Memorial committee member Tony Gonsor with a $1,000 check on behalf of the student council to assist with the construction of the memorial.
Curtis Halverson, a Korean War veteran credited with helping organize the first veterans day program in Custer, received a plaque from the student council.
Halverson, 88, had a military career that began at Camp Gordon, Ga. Upon completing cryptographer school, he was assigned to the 16th Signal Corp Operations Battalion. This took him to many posts, including Fort Hood, Texas, and Camp Cook, Camp Roberts and Camp San Luis Obispo, all in California, as well as Camp Desert Rock, Nev.
At Camp Desert Rock, he was reassigned and served as the NCOIC of the communication center. Halversons’ military career included tours of duty to Korea during the Korean Conflict. He processed out from active duty at Camp San Luis Obispo May 10, 1953. He continued his military service for 11 more years, serving in the Army Reserves as a supply sergeant, mess sergeant and drill sergeant.
After separating from active duty with the Army, Halverson had a long and extensive journey in the electrical field. He held electrical licenses in five states which granted him authority to work in 32 states. On July 1, 1966, Halverson moved his family to Custer, where he worked for Black Hills Electric Cooperative as operations superintendent.
After moving to Custer, Halverson joined the American Legion where, for over 50 years, he continued serving his fellow veterans, community and country. He held virtually every office for Post No. 46 and served as Custer County commander, District 13 commander and state vice commander. In recognition of his lifetime service and accomplishments, Halverson received the rarely awarded American Legion Gold Medal of Merit in April 2016.
Halverson and his wife, Betty, retired in Custer in 1993. He now lives in Rapid City and remains active in Hermosa’s Battle Creek Post No. 303.
Veterans were honored at Custer Elementary via a “Veterans Lunch,” the brainchild of Lunchtime Solutions manager, Sarah McCoy, who has five members of her family who have served in the military. McCoy’s grandfather, father and three brothers all served in the military.
McCoy organized all the decorations and Gina Kassube, art teacher, helped with art projects to decorate the lunch room. The meal saw 65 veterans and 27 additional guests (wives, husbands, family members) attend.
“This is a record and surpasses any lunch we have had in the past,” said elementary guidance counselor Michelle Watland. “This is the first year we have hosted this event and I am sure it will be an annual event.”
Lunchtime Solutions Inc. donated all the meals to the veterans.
“It was fun to see so many in the lunch line enjoying lunch and then emptying their trays,” Watland said. “It had to have been a long time since they were in a lunch room.”
Students were encouraged to invite a veteran. Children invited their fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, uncles, friends and church members who heard about the event. High school students were hosts and hostesses and helped serve the meal.
Watland said many veterans said how honored they felt and how wonderful it was for them to be able to have lunch with the kids, meet their friends and family and maybe meet other veterans they did not know.
Watland said the events were about showing love, respect and compassion for the great sacrifice these men and women gave for their country, along with honoring those who have given their lives as a sacrifice or served and are no longer with us.
“To see some of these folks today and thinking about if they will be with us next year was on my heart. One veteran spoke with me as I was leaving the armory. He told me how much this meant to him,” Watland said. “He was not given the honor when he returned home from the war. He was one of those whom the guest speaker talked about who could not wear his uniform with honor and was treated so poorly.”
A sister service was held at the Hermosa School as well, which featured a morning raising and afternoon lowering of a flag with the assistance of the Hermosa American Legion. The morning ceremony included Revelry and the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a visit from veterans with coffee and donuts and veterans visiting classrooms.
Later in the morning were middle school presentations, including Medal of Honor and Purple Heart presentations, followed by a missing man table setup, lunch with veterans and a 2 p.m. playing of the National Anthem. The day concluded with the playing of Taps and then the flag lowering and thanking the veterans outside the school.
Holmes concluded the ceremony at the Armory by reminding the crowd that veterans do their job for minimal pay and are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We hear about our high national debt, and we should not minimize it,” he said. “But we need to remember a higher debt—the one that we owe to those who have given us so much, the veterans.
“We need to remember that to the veterans, war is not a mere history lesson or subject in a book. For them it continues after the fighting stops and they return home. We need to remember the sacrifices made, the lives lost and the lost family time. We need to remember Veterans Day is also freedoms day. Veterans put us first. And Saturday, we put them first.”