PORT ANGELES — World War II veteran William Payne held his hand high as keynote speaker Rear Adm. Christopher “Scotty” Gray of the U.S. Navy searched for the oldest veteran in the room Monday.
Applause filled the room as Gray stepped down from the stage to present the quilt to the 96-year-old former merchant marine, continuing the Veterans Day tradition at U.S. Coast Guard Air Station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles.
“Whether you have led a platoon, driven a tank or commanded an artillery battery, it is your determination and indomitable spirit that has led our nation to victory since the establishment of our country,” Gray told the hundreds who attended the ceremony. “We owe a debt to our veterans which we can never repay.”
The ceremony included patriotic music from the Port Angeles High School Band, the Sequim High School Select Choir, the Olympic Peninsula Men’s Chorus and the Grand Olympics Chorus.
The Port Angeles High School Navy Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps Color Guard presented the colors, the Mount Olympus Detachment of the Marine Corps League performed a three-volley rifle salute, the Port Angeles High School Band performed taps and retired Coast Guardsman Rick McKenzie played Amazing Grace on bagpipes.
Gray told the veterans in attendance they are “1 percenters,” adding they have done more for their country than the other 99 percent of citizens.
The cutters and patrol boats visitors saw as they arrived to the Coast Guard base do not float, but “those great ships are carried to sea on the backs of their crews and it’s our outstanding sailors who make the mission possible every day, who protect our country, who serve with heroism, tenacity and courage every day,” he said.
“Often,” Gray continued, “under very difficult circumstances, at great personal sacrifice and, growingly, for folks in our country who completely take for granted the peace, prosperity and freedoms that you have underwritten with your blood and sacrifice. Thank you for that, for being part of our great country.”
The world is growing increasingly dangerous, Gray told the crowd.
He said that many of the issues he sees in the world are similar to those faced prior to World War II, citing the expansion Russian and Chinese influence.
“[Russia] just grabbed Crimea from the Ukraine and now they are fostering for men in the eastern Ukraine,” Gray said, referring to the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. “When you think back in history … those are the kinds of things that happened in our past, but they are happening right now.”
He warned that the Chinese economy will “eclipse” the United States economy.
“We’ve got to be innovative,” he said. “We have to think about how we’re going to present a strong face to the world and maintain our strength, because only in the face of strength do bullies back down.”
Cmdr. M. Scott Jackson, commanding officer of Air station/Sector Field Office Port Angeles, said that more than 40 million people have served and more than 1 million gave their lives doing so.
Jackson said he was honored to speak during the ceremony, adding that the room was filled with heroes.
“In some way or another, every American family is touched by a man or woman who heard the call to serve our great country in its armed forces,” Jackson said. “There should never be a doubt in anyone’s mind that America’s brave sons and daughters have given so much.”
Jackson said that after witnessing the “amazing love” the local community shows for its local veterans, he had to think hard about what to say during this year’s ceremony.
“Having served as a commanding officer in both the United State Coast Guard and the United States Army, I’ve had absolutely no greater privilege, nor higher honor in my life, than to be entrusted with the responsibility of leading the finest and most courageous men and women you will ever meet,” Jackson said.
“Each one of these brave young men and women I have served with and now serve alongside, have been willing to risk their lives to stand in the gap for our freedom and our safety.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].