GRAYSON - Veterans Day will be officially celebrated Tuesday by Americans at home and abroad. But it began a little early this year for Charles Ford.
Around midday Saturday, Ford and a few others gathered at the Chestnut Grove Baptist Church's cemetery and began the tradition of placing American flags at the graves of those former soldiers and servicemen and women who've passed away.
For Ford, it's a tradition he's participated in at the church for eight years now. The reason he does it - to honor his brother Gene, a World War II veteran who fought in Europe and at the Battle of the Bulge. There's even a display of Gene's medals for valor at the Veteran's Museum in Lawrenceville.
Like so many other veterans from that war, Gene passed away a couple of years ago. It was then that Ford got the idea to do something more, as a way to pay tribute to all veterans who've served in our country's armed conflicts.
The culmination of that idea came to fruition Saturday at about 2:30 p.m. when 50 onlookers raised an American flag and saluted it with their hands placed over their hearts while "Taps" played. To dedicate the new veterans' monument - a simple piece of blue granite stone placed at the cemetery's entrance - Ford told the crowd a little bit about his brother Gene and what he went through in serving the United States.
"My brother was captured and was then made to do a long march. If you fell out of line, you couldn't help your comrade out because the enemy would come along and shoot you. I don't know how long it lasted but I understand it was about 8,000 soldiers.
"They all marched to a railroad station and were then loaded on boxcars. They rode for four days with no food and water. Then they got to their destination - a concentration camp - and were unloaded.
"One of the first things they had to do then was take their shoes and socks off. This was during the coldest winter that Germany had ever had. They were then made to shovel coal off of boxcars for 16 hours a day. They spent one year doing that. During that year they usually ate a bowl of potato soup without a potato in it. He almost starved to death. His feet and legs froze. His feet eventually swelled up and developed gangrene. When he was liberated, the doctors wanted to amputate his leg but he wouldn't let them. This is the reason I do this program," Ford said. "And this monument should now always remind us about our veterans."
Paul Pickard, a Stone Mountain resident and a Korean War veteran retired from the Air Force, was in attendance with his wife Evelyn, who served in the Navy during the Korean conflict. They were joined by World War II veteran Ruth Johnson, who volunteered for service when the war broke out and she was in college - "because home economics didn't particularly appeal to me," she said.
All were honored by the monument dedication Saturday, and all had a busy week planned with Veterans Day activities Tuesday which would bring them into the classrooms of some local schools to tell their tales of service and dedication.
"This is fantastic and one of the greatest things," Paul said pointing to the monument. "It's really a tribute to the men who've served and is really what it's all about."
"It brings history alive," Johnson said of telling youngsters about her war experience. "For me it was just the idea of being in the service that appealed to me."
"There can't be enough of a tribute to the veterans as far as I'm concerned," Paul said.
And then he looked at the cars passing by on the streets, the church building in front of him, the monument now dedicated and the leaves blowing about on what could be described as a perfect fall day. Then he had perhaps the perfect epiphany about the true meaning of Veterans Day.
"We couldn't do all this without the veterans," he said.