Columbia celebrates common bond of all veterans

Longtime members of the Columbia American Legion were honored during Columbia’s Veterans Day service on Tuesday. They are, from left, 65-year member Norman Schmidt, 60-year member George Eckert and 60-year member Eugene Mathews. (Robyn Dexter photo)

Veterans of all ages were honored in a service Tuesday afternoon at the Columbia American Legion in honor of Veterans Day.

The ceremony included a lieutenant general guest speaker and recognition of 60- and 65-year Legionnaires.

The guest speaker was Lt. General John M. Nowak (retired), who served as deputy chief of staff of logistics at the headquarters for the U.S. Air Force in Washington D.C.

Nowak highlighted how the military experience can bring so many people together and unite them, regardless of how young or old they are.

“We always describe (serving) as sort of a common experience, but if you look back at the variety of things we did, places we were, and missions we served in, it’s just tremendous,” he said. “But yet we still look at it as a common experience. The thing that is common is that it shapes us and molds our values into the future.”

Nowak’s military career began with the admiration of his uncles when they returned from World War II.

“They were the ones who first began to shape my attitude about military service,” Nowak said. “They gave me ribbons and hats and medals… All things that made me realize there’s something special about serving.”

Nowak went on to detail his timeline of service, including graduating college and being assigned to aircraft maintenance and logistic support business.

“I found that the Air Force had a way of making better decisions for me than I made for

signed to the 483rd tactical airlift wing in Vietnam after being in the Air Force about four years.

“These airplanes operated under such extreme conditions in remote locations, so they were constantly breaking,” Nowak said. “I got to spend about half my time with Army guys in outposts fixing airplanes. It turned out to be the most rewarding period of my time (in the service).”

The Air Force was a great career over the years, Nowak said, and he really loved seeing the amount of people who really love the United States.

“Most people who go into the services spend two to four years there, but this thing called ‘military experience’ occupies a very special place – both for those of us who go through it and for the country who appreciates it,” he said. “There’s a common support, camaraderie and reverence for the military experience that exists universally, no matter what part of the country you go to.”

Nowak traveled the country talking about the Air Force and said he came to a “new understanding” of how much people respect the armed forces.

“You spend a long time complaining about bad food, low pay, long hours and too many moves, but as soon as we get out, we go out and join the American Legion or the local VFW so that we can remember that forever,” Nowak said. “It’s embodied in the word ‘service.’ It’s the most selfless and noble thing most of us will take on in a lifetime.”

Following Nowak’s speech, the Post 581 Honor Guard honored local members who have been a part of the American Legion for a very long time.

They honored 60-year members George Eckert and Eugene Mathews, along with 65-year member Norman Schmidt with certificates and gifts.

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