By Diane Wagner
In years past, American Legion Post 55 could count on dozens of supporters at the annual Veterans Day ceremony on the McDonough Square.
On Tuesday about 500 people filled the grassy park to capacity in honor of those who fought and died for their country.
"The crowd was really big," said Barbara Ann Davis, president of American Legion Post 55 Ladies Auxiliary. "I think the beautiful weather had something to do with it, but there's also a war on and a lot more people are being patriotic. I think we've had a wake-up call."
Indeed, references to the fighting in Iraq were sprinkled among speakers' comments on the heroism of service members in the two world wars and others.
"This special day brings two words to mind: Sacrifice and gratitude," the Rev. Courtney Wall said during an invocation that ended with blessings for "those who have served, and those who are serving now."
In his welcoming remarks, McDonough Mayor Richard Craig praised "the men and women who fought for our lives and who continue to do so."
And Henry County Commissioner Gary Freedman, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, noted that the view of the world has changed since the terrorist attacks of 9-11.
"We became more cautious, more vigilant and more cynical," he said. "And we recognized that we take freedom for granted. But freedom isn't free."
The courthouse clock set a solemn tone at the outset, tolling 11 a.m. just as the Henry County JROTC presented the flags of the five branches of service and those captured or missing in action.
By the end of the 20-minute ceremony, attendees were wiping their eyes as Alton Thomas sang a slow, uplifting version of "God Bless America" that echoed from the shops ringing the Square.
Highlights of the gathering included a musical "Salute to America" by the Henry County Middle School band and a presentation of wreaths and flowers in memory of local American Legion members and auxiliaries who died in the past year.
Many, although not all, served during World War II: James Allen Castellaw served in the Army from 1941 to 1946; Cary Coan was 18 years old when he fought in the Battle of the Bulge; Harry Credell served in the Air Force from 1950 to 1954; former Henry County Probate Judge C.O. "Jack" Polk was at Pearl Harbor when it was bombed; R.J. "Johnny" Rucker was in the Navy during WWII; and Joel "Joe" Levett spent 1942 to 1945 in the Army.
Ladies Auxiliary members memorialized Tuesday were Ida Laura McDaniel, Sara Pitts and Agnes Radcliff.
Freedman called for the country to remember what it owes its veterans every day.
"We must keep them in our hearts and in our thoughts, not only on special days such as today but, every time we look at our great flag waving in the breeze ? and every time we hear ? of how our military is still in harm's way," he said. "Freedom is not based on short, frenzied bursts of emotion, but on the steady and thoughtful dedication of brave souls."