Flags lined the walkway all the way up the hill and a bagpiper played to usher guests inside. The cloudy weather outside had little impact on the atmosphere within.
Stories of peace and stories of war were swapped over plates of barbecue and patriotic music as veterans gave thanks for their survival and remembered those who paid the ultimate price.
This was the scene at the Levine Senior Center in Matthews Monday, Nov. 12, where the nonprofit and the Matthews Rotary Club were hosts for veterans and their families at the annual Veterans Day celebration. Texas Roadhouse catered the event.
About 200 veterans, representing each branch of the U.S. military and nearly every U.S. military conflict from World War II to Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield, sat at round tables and shared their service experiences with others who had once worn the nation’s uniforms.
World War II Naval Fighter Pilot Ray Killian, Sr. served as guest speaker, telling the story of his service. Now 91, Killian served aboard the U.S.S. Hancock, earning a distinguished flying cross and seven air medals. Killian was the pilot who shot down the last Japanese plane of the war.
“I just happened to get the last of them,” he said. “When we came back, the war was over.”
Among jokes and remembering lost friends, Killian emphasized that through all of his experiences, there was one thing that he was happy about.
“As a veteran, the only thing out of the war that I’m glad happened—I survived,” he said. “No one wins in war. I’m sad for all the people who did not come back and kept this country safe. I’d like to think God spared me for something. So I feel I should do a little extra, because I was spared.”
Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor said the event is something students should be able to experience.
“I just really wish we could take all of this on the road to our schools, so that our children can learn what these people have gone through and so that they can appreciate their freedom,” he said. “It’s just such an honor to be here with all of them. It’s one thing to read about this in a book. It’s another to see these people and to hear their stories.”
Meet some of the veterans …
Airman Third Class Rick Gilmore, 80, of Stanly, served from 1952 to 1962. Gilmore never experienced combat, but joined the U.S. Air Force when he was old enough and felt it necessary to do what he could to serve.
“I’m just proud that I was able to do my part for my country,” Gilmore said. “I never was in combat like (Killian) but I just wanted to do what I could.”
For Gilmore, originally from Wadesboro, it was pride of his country and a sense of duty that sent him to the recruiter.
“I was just there to do what I needed to do to help,” he said. “I wanted to do my part.”
Lt. Col. Gaylord Carlton, 60, of Matthews, served in the U.S. Air Force for 25 years.
Carlton was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant out of the Air Force ROTC in the 1970s while he attended North Carolina A&T in Greensboro.
“I was initially enrolled with 70 cadets and out of 22 selected to be trained as Air Force pilots, only four became full U.S. Air Force pilots,” he said. “I was one of those four.”
Carlton clocked more than 13,000 flight hours during his time in the service, flying the Lockheed C-130 Hercules, a four-engine turboprop transport aircraft, along with four other types of aircraft.
“My most memorable time was when I was part of the VIP support mission for Senator John Kerry out of Omaha, Neb. back to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia,” Carlton said. “I flew him back into North Vietnam during his return Medal of Honor trip.”
Carlton said the trip lasted 13 days and flew out of the Yokota Air Force Base in Japan.
Carlton, who said he entered the service just after the Vietnam War, served in combat operations during Operation Desert Storm. Carlton’s wife, Mary Ann, accompanied him to the event.
Army Lt. Col. Don McInnis, of Weddington, entered the service in 1961 and earned his Green Beret during his time in the military. McInnis was an Army Airborne Green Beret, serving in the Special Forces as an
engineering officer. McInnis spent eight years on active duty, after which he was a reservist. McInnis retired in 1994.
“I served in Vietnam, in Paraguay and in the first Gulf War,” McInnis explained.
McInnis became commander of all engineers in the south east in the 16th Engineer Battalion. He now serves as a field expert, coordinating and helping train Special Forces troops.
“I’ve always been impressed with the sharp young men we have now,” he said. “I’m impressed with the kids in this day and age, getting qualified. We have maybe 350 that go through the training every year and some still flunk out toward the end. That’s how serious that training is, and to earn that is something very special.”
For McInnis, it’s inspiring to see the next generations go through what he experienced.
“We’ve been so lucky to have so many young people come forward to serve and to go through all of this,” he said. “That’s really what this is all about, is using our experiences in the service and our second chance to help the generations that come after us. It’s their turn to defend this country and our freedom. I’m just happy I get to help them.”