Veterans Day ceremonies observed in downtown Columbus

Mike Wolanin | The Republic Members of the Bartholomew County Veterans Honor Guard fire a rifle volley during the annual Veterans Day ceremony at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans in Columbus, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023.

Despite abundant sunshine, a drop in temperatures may have impacted the size of the audience at Saturday’s Bartholomew County Community Veterans Day program.

About 120 people showed up at the Bartholomew County Memorial for Veterans on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. That’s down from about 200 last year.

Master of Ceremonies John Foster began the commemoration by reading a letter written for the occasion by U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Indiana, that seemed appropriate in light of the current Israel-Hamas conflict.

Young told the story of Fredrick Knefler (1824-1901), a Jewish Hungarian who was barely 15 when he fought in his country’s 1848 War of Liberation.

After being forced to leave Hungary, Knefler immigrated to the United States and eventually moved to Indianapolis where he founded the first Jewish Congregation in the state’s capitol.

But Knefler’s greatest fame was likely earned as commander of the newly formed 79th Indiana Infantry, where he eventually became the first Jewish Brigadier General of the Civil War.

“Fredrick Knefler’s story is proof that during the past two centuries, this country has been a rare outpost of freedom and tolerance in a world where both have been the exception – not the norm,” Young wrote.

Robin Hilber, the assistant director of community development in Columbus, said a few weeks before the holiday that she didn’t feel confident about being asked to be the program’s guest speaker.

Her remarks were centered on her Oct. 21 Indy Honor Flight to Washington D.C., where she served as an guardian for her 90-year-old uncle, Jack Foist. The Honor Flight takes elderly Hoosier veterans like Foist, who served 27 years in the military, to Washington D.C. for a one-day visit to military memorials at no cost.

But despite Hilber’s initial concerns, two Veterans Day Committee members used the same phrase to describe her message.

“She hit it out of the ball park,” said both Foster and Zack Ellison after the program.

Hilber struck an emotional chord by reading two handwritten letters that Foist, a Korean War veteran, received during the flight back from the nation’s capitol.

In the first letter, a woman named Naomi wrote:

‘From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate what you have done for South Korea. For your honorable actions, I am proud to say that I was born in South Korea. The reason you fought was for freedom and independence of our nation. I thank you, although a thank you is not enough for the gratitude that you’ve earned.

The second letter was from a middle-school student named Hannah, whose words brought tears to more than a few eyes, including Hilber’s.

“I can visit my Korean relatives, who are all safe because of your – and many other soldiers’ – bravery. If the Korean War had not be fought, then I wouldn’t even be here today. We’re all thankful for your bravery, and your efforts will never be forgotten.”

Due to the passage of time, there were more Vietnam War veterans in attendance than those from other wars. Many men and women who fought in that conflict say they feel overdue, but sincere gratitude from their neighbors.

“A parade in 2000 was the first time I felt a bit of appreciation for what we did,” Army veteran Alvin Balmer said. “People today say ‘thank you for your service’. I never got that before.”

Former Bartholomew County commissioner Paul Franke said he handed out campaign brochures in 1986 that stated he was a Vietnam War veteran.

“Over the years, people started asking about the war, saying things like they had an Uncle Bob who was in Vietnam,” Franke said. “You do begin to feel the appreciation as time goes on.”

When Navy veteran Ron McIntosh was discharged in 1970, he said he didn’t want to show anybody his uniform because some civilians were calling Vietnam War veterans ‘baby killers’ to their face.

“But since that went away, it’s been harmony ever since,” McIntosh said. “They help us without any hesitation. In fact, I get kind of embarrassed by how many people want to help us now.

Camilla Gehring was chosen this year to sing the National Anthem. Traditional features include the Southern Indiana Pipes and Drums and the laying of wreaths at the memorial. Members of the Bartholomew County Veterans Honor Guard provided a 21-rifle salute, followed by the playing of “Taps.”

Photos from the event can be viewed in the photo gallery at the following link: