Waterloo honors veterans with patriotic ceremony

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Five surviving veterans of World War II’s Battle of the Bulge were present for the Veterans Day program. They are, from left, James Brandon, Clyde Erb, Norman Eggemeyer, Merrill Kirchhoefer and Lovelace “Ace” Kitchen. (Alan Dooley photos)

More than 200 veterans, family members, public officials and citizens gathered in a Waterloo High School auditorium decorated in red, white and blue last Tuesday evening to observe Veterans Day.

This year’s ceremony paid special tribute to local veterans of the First Gulf War and surviving participants in the Battle of the Bulge during World War II.

A combined chorus of students from Waterloo and Gibault high schools sang the National Anthem and a medley of service songs of each branch during the program.

“Your service has helped preserve our country and allowed others to focus their lives on peaceful pursuits,” Waterloo Mayor Tom Smith said during opening remarks that thanked all veterans.

State Representative Jerry Costello II – himself a veteran and Gulf War honoree – talked about the need to take democracy seriously and teach our children its meaning.

State VFW officer Fritz Mihelcic, who served in the First Gulf War, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, was the evening’s main speaker.

Mihelcic, an administrative law judge in civilian life, wore the uniform of an Air National Guard Sergeant, serving as a security policeman in the Gulf conflicts. He was medically discharged after his service due to injuries suffered in the desert.  Today, he serves in the legal office at the U.S. Transportation Command at Scott Air Force base.

Mihelcic reminded the audience of some facts about the Gulf Wars. He told them the Guard and Reserve force mobilizations for these conflicts were historic in scale.  He also contrasted the way veterans of Vietnam and the Gulf Wars were treated by Americans at large on their returns home, with thanks and honor.

That continues today.

First Gulf War veterans recognized included Andy Arterburn, David Baxmeyer, Andrew Baxter, Chad Buescher, Jeff Cassens, James Cornelius, Jerry Costello II, William Curran, Kirk Drege, Roger Emery, Lee Guethle, Jeremy Krump, William Rebholz, James Reichert, Julie Roth, Jeff Stiening, Tammy Warden and Mike Wightman.

Battle of the Bulge veterans also drew Mihelcic’s praise.

“One of your commanders, 101st Division Commander, General Tony McAuliffe, was asked by the Germans to surrender as they swept forward at Bastogne,” Mihelcic said to Battle of the Bulge honorees present. “Instead of giving up, you all fought back and turned the tide of the war.”

The Waterloo VFW Color Guard posts the colors at the start of last Tuesday’s Veterans Day program in the Waterloo High School auditorium.

In that battle, which began Dec. 16, 1944, Nazi German forces hurled themselves against allied forces, driving a “bulge” into Allied lines, trying to split U.S. and British forces and retake Antwerp, through which most of the Allied supplies were being delivered.  The veterans of this battle first blunted the German offensive and then drove them back.  The battle’s conclusion – Jan. 29, 1945 – was the turning point in the war in Europe.

Some 610,000 Americans fought in this battle against a determined military foe and historically bitter winter. Of that number, some 89,000 became casualties, including 19,000 who died on the snow-covered battlefield.

Five veterans of the Battle of the Bulge who were present Tuesday to be honored were James Brandon, Clyde Erb, Norman Eggemeyer, Merrill Kirchhoefer and Lovelace “Ace” Kitchen.

Mihelcic also addressed the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, telling how wars end, but their impacts may not, and acknowledging that he suffers from it.

He said 22 veterans are diagnosed each day as suffering from this form of long-lasting challenge from their horrific experiences in combat.

Following the ceremony, Mihelcic stated in a thank you letter to Mayor Smith that the event was an “outstanding showing of patriotism and pride” from the community.

“Without doubt, this was the best Veterans Day program I have attended in years,” he said. “As a veteran, I truly felt welcomed and at home.”

The evening concluded with refreshments served in the lobby before veterans and other attendees departed to face the bitterly cold night.

But they did so with warmed hearts.

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