Despite wintry weather conditions that made travel hazardous, Monroe County residents came out in droves to various programs honoring veterans for Veterans Day.
In Columbia, this year’s event focused on recognizing heroes including local law enforcement officers who have died.
Columbia Mayor and American Legion member Kevin Hutchinson spoke first, following the posting of the colors, reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance, playing of the National Anthem and “America the Beautiful” and an opening prayer.
Hutchinson said his favorite part of the holiday is seeing all the children who come to events like Columbia’s.
“I want to thank you for being here because you get it,” Hutchinson said. “You understand what it means to come and say ‘thank you’ to those who provided the atmosphere that we have, to have the schools and the freedom to come to an event like this.”
Auxiliary Unit 581 President Janet Janson spoke next about the history of Veterans Day and the role of the American Legion, noting it has donated items and money to numerous organizations aimed at helping veterans.
“We will continue to find as many ways as we can to offer assistance to veterans,” Janson vowed.
The featured speaker was John Conrad, who for years has co-chaired the Veterans Day and Memorial Day programs for Post 581 with Gene Henckler.
Conrad spoke about the local law enforcement officers, noting the response of the community to recent tragedies like the death of Illinois State Police Trooper Nick Hopkins.
“Columbia people, Monroe County people and our friends and neighbors from nearby communities show up,” Conrad said. “As I look around this room, I see a hall full of people who are true first responders. You are the people who are first to join, the first to offer help, the first to donate and, indeed, the first to respond in time of crisis or community need.”
Conrad said the recent outpouring of support reminded him of other Monroe County residents who died while serving the public.
He spoke of Columbia police officer William Rauch, who died in 1924 while directing traffic at a fire scene; of Columbia Night Marshal Charles Kern, who died in 1941 in an automobile accident; of Columbia police officer Alfred Descher, who died nine days before retirement in 1964 when he was struck by a motorist while responding to a crash; and Columbia police officer Tom Kocher, who died suddenly while on duty in 2000.
Of course, he also highlighted Hopkins and St. Louis County police officer and Hecker resident Mitch Ellis.
The focus of Conrad’s speech, however, was on U.S. Army Air Force Sgt. Arthur Juengling, who died June 11, 1922 and whose story most reminded Conrad and Henckler of recent events.
“Sgt. Juengling was considered a national hero at the time for his record-setting feats as an Army aviator,” Conrad said.
Juengling was a Columbia resident who attended both Catholic and public schools in town before working at a local hardware company.
He joined the military at 19, and in his service assisted in establishing several records. That includes being the assistant to the first pilot to ever fly over the Grand Canyon.
Juengling died when the plane he was flying in struck the side of a mountain and was incinerated.
Newspaper accounts from the time estimate about 10,000 people lined the streets for Juengling’s funeral procession, which is particularly impressive given Columbia’s population at the time was about 1,000.
“It was undoubtedly the largest funeral ever held in Monroe County,” Conrad said, quoting an article from The Columbia Star.
After Conrad’s speech, active duty military members and first responders were honored, along with veterans.
The Legion then presented five certificates to individuals who have been members for 50 years or more.
Post 581 Commander Greg Smith closed out the ceremony after the playing of “God Bless America” by offering thanks to his fellow veterans.
“The American Legion knows that service doesn’t stop when the uniform comes off,” he said. “As we honor our nation’s living veterans today, it is fitting that I say to those who came before me, to those I had the privilege to serve with and to those who came after me: thank you for your selfless service.”
In Waterloo, the ceremony honoring 10 Vietnam veterans at the VFW was postponed until Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. due to inclement weather.
The city’s program, however, still took place Tuesday night in the Gibault Catholic High School gym.
This year’s program highlighted POW-MIA veterans. Waterloo was named an official POW-MIA City earlier this year.
The guest speaker was Col. Jeremiah “Scot” Heathman of the U.S. Air Force. He is Commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base.
Gibault’s new Military Honor Wall was also available for viewing.