On the Grounds of the University of Virginia, ROTC cadets marched, rifle-to-shoulder, slow, steady and silent in solemn remembrance of those who have not come home.
Across town, at the Dogwood Vietnam War Memorial, a pride of old lions stood, medals-on-chest, tears in their eyes and alone with their memories as a trumpeter blew taps.
Military veterans from all wars, all services and all stripes were honored across Central Virginia on Monday in celebration of Veterans Day.
Retired Marine Col. James T. O’Kelley Jr., of American Legion Post 74, stood at the Dogwood memorial as veterans, family and supporters clambered down a hill in McIntire Park to get to the ceremony.
It was the post’s third celebration of the day, including a morning ceremony at the Albemarle County Office Building and one at James Monroe’s Highland.
O’Kelley, a decorated veteran who led Marines at Ca Lu during intense fighting in the Vietnam War’s 1968 Tet Offensive and bloody siege at nearby Khe Sanh, said he’s glad to see the recent increase in appreciation for veterans.
“We served and fought for our country, and when I returned, I was told I couldn’t wear my uniform in public because it could cause trouble,” he recalled. “A lot of the guys were treated poorly when they returned. I believe a lot of the current appreciation for veterans is because Vietnam vets have said, ‘damn it, we’re not letting this happen to another generation.’ And we’re not.”
Veterans Day honors all military veterans who served in the Armed Forces, while Memorial Day honors those who died in service. Veterans Day also is celebrated in other countries as Armistice Day, which marked the end of World War I.
The ceremonies are not often controversial. This year, however, a decision by UVa officials to nix a traditional three-volley rifle salute, referred to colloquially as a 21-gun salute, was met with widespread community outcry.
The Daily Progress was swarmed with letters to the editor in opposition to UVa’s decision. The issue sparked more correspondence than any other since the immediate aftermath of the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017.
The salute normally occurs at the closing ceremony for the cadets’ 24-hour vigil.
UVa President Jim Ryan responded to the criticisms in a letter to the community on social media. He said the decision was made to avoid disrupting classes near the ceremony’s amphitheater location and “recognizing concerns related to firing weapons on the Grounds in light of gun violence that has happened across our nation, especially on school and university campuses.”
A 21-gun salute was included in St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church’s Veterans Day Mass on Monday. After the salute at the Charlottesville church, attendees clapped and then “lots of people said in loud voices, ‘Hope you heard that Jim Ryan,’” according to parishioner Mary Miller.
In his statement, Ryan noted that the rifle volley is not always a part of Veterans Day ceremonies.
The rifle volley had been a part of the UVa ROTC ceremony, which specifically honors prisoners of war and those missing in action, for at least a decade. Virginia Tech ROTC cadets hold a similar ceremony every year and include a rifle volley. That was true of their Monday ceremony, as well.
Ryan said another area of UVa was considered but cadets wanted the ceremony to remain at the amphitheater’s central location, just off the Lawn.
Ryan said the university will take another look at the salute next year to determine whether it should be included.
“We will work with our ROTC officers and cadets to take a closer look at options for our Veterans Day events, including those that would enable us to re-introduce the 21-gun salute to the program,” Ryan wrote.
O’Kelley said he is concerned that the action to drop the salute is part of an effort to slowly erode the history of veterans on Grounds. He said the salute is a powerful and cathartic symbol for veterans.
“It has nothing to do with gun violence. It brings things together. It’s the past and it’s the present. It’s about honor and respect,” he said. “For me, it reminds me of the young men I lost in combat and it gives me chills. I went in [to combat at Ca Lu] with 225 Marines and I came out with only 63. When I hear the volleys, I see their faces.”
The vigil ends at 4 p.m. Tuesday.