Highland held its first Veterans Day Celebration on Saturday, Nov. 6, thanks to wide participation and support from veterans, local Scouts, musical performers and other community members, all eager to honor the nation’s veterans and express gratitude for their service and sacrifices.
The inaugural event was held at Highland Community Park where, on a warm day, many of the guests chose to watch the ceremonies and musical performances from the shade of trees around the event’s perimeter.
The event opened with the presentation of colors, which featured several local veterans on stage and in procession with Highland Girl Scout Troop 1212, Highland Scouts Troop and Pack 226, American Legion Post 421 Honor Guard, the Freedom Riders and American Legion Riders Squadron. Taking the stage alongside the service branch flags was Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war Lt. Col. Anthony Marshall (USAF retired) presenting the POW-MIA flag. Marshall later served as the keynote speaker.
The Prime Time Choraliers, Ella Thomas of Beattie Middle School, Victoria Erwin and Old Guys Trumpet Fanfare Quartet all contributed to the event with patriotic music, followed by the Highland Music Co. with a classic rock concert.
As the keynote speaker, Marshall shared his experience as a crewman on a F-4 Phantom during the Vietnam War, getting shot down and being held as a POW.
“I want to start by thanking all the veterans who served and serve,” Marshall started. “We all raised our hand and gave the military a blank check payable up to and including our lives. I have to tell you I volunteered to fly airplanes, I volunteered to go to combat. So, whatever happened to me was my own fault. I begged to be sent.”
Marshall was on his second tour and his 266th mission when he and his pilot were forced to eject. Marshall said he’s not sure what went wrong and doesn’t remember much about the ejection as he blacked out shortly after his pilot fired the seats.
“He didn’t tell me anything; he didn’t have time to,” he said. “I’m sitting in the back seat changing a roll of film because I’m stupid and wanted to take pictures of the fireworks, when he pulls the handles. There’s an explosion. The next thing I know everything went completely white. The seat had fired, raised me about 6 inches and I hit the wind stream at about 600 mph.”
The next thing Marshall remembers is standing on hillside babbling into a radio in his hand with his parachute draped over his shoulder. He was encircled by six to eight guys with AK-47s.
“Most of us had heard about the torture going on in North Vietnam, and we decided we wanted no parts of that. So, there were three options—you could ride the airplane in and burn up in the crash, you save one bullet and blow your brains out or you could start a land war that you can’t win,” Marshall said. “My pilot was the type that took option three. I’m not sure which option I would have taken. I knew the first two were out. So, if anything, I would have taken option three also.”
Once captured, Marshall was interrogated and made to take part in a staged capture for North Vietnamese propaganda. Marshall lied throughout most of the interrogation to frustrate his captors. Once in the POW camp Marshall realized he “had to back off being the tough guy” to try to get by, but he continued to try to get away with what he could.
He was captive from July 1972 to March 1973 and spent time at both Hoa Lo Prison, known as the Hanoi Hilton, and “the Zoo” also in Hanoi.
As one of the last POWs captured and one of the more troublesome prisoners, when the war ended Marshall was among the last to be released back to the United States.
After the war, Marshall entered a long career as a commercial pilot and later became an educator.
A committee of volunteers and community leaders who would like to see Highland have an annual Veterans Day celebration organized the event.
James Morales Jr., of Highland Music Co., helped lead the two-year effort and was pleased with the outcome.
“I wanted everyone to feel a sense of community and to learn a little bit more about these people who commit and sign on the dotted line to serve and defend us,” Morales said.
Morales was especially pleased with the attendance for the first-year event and with the community participation.
Mayor Penny Lilburn, a member of the event’s organizing committee, agreed.
“The program nailed it. We had everything involved, patriotic music that showcased our community’s talent, our children in scout groups, local military organizations and San Manuel [which provided a large American flag suspended over the event between ladder trucks]. We had everyone involved,” Lilburn said. “It reflects how much Highland appreciates our veterans.”
In the coming weeks, the Veterans Day Celebration Committee, plans to meet for a debriefing and to determine whether or not to continue the event next year. Based on initial feedback from the community and the volunteers, Morales believes the event will become an annual occurrence.
He hopes to raise even more community involvement for future events, especially from local veterans who would be willing to share their stories.