11/12/17 — Remembering those who serve

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Remembering those who serve

By Steve Herring
Published in News on November 12, 2017 3:05 AM

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Sylvania Wilkerson, commander of the local chapter of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, gives the Veterans Day message Thursday during the Wayne Community College Veterans Celebration.

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Booths are set up in the Wayne Learning Center at Wayne Community College Thursday by several organizations for veterans and those who are interested in serving in the military.

Most Americans get up every morning, go about their business never thinking about where they get their freedom, said retired Army 1st Sgt. Sylvania Wilkerson Sr.

And there are members of the U.S. armed forces that no one understands the duties they perform and sacrifices that they make, he said.

"The thing that I want you to remember is why we must always remember those who serve our country in the armed forces," Wilkerson told the crowd of about 100 who gathered Thursday afternoon for the Wayne Community College Veterans Celebration. "Since the Revolutionary War, the United States has been dependent upon its armed forces for security.

"This is not only for physical security of this country, it is for the principles that we stand for."

That is why the country has troops stationed throughout the world, including areas that people do not realize, Wilkerson said.

Held at Moffatt Auditorium in the WCC Learning Center, the event also included a Military and Partners Expo in the atrium.

Veterans' groups, service branch representatives and organizations that provide services to military members had displays and provided information.

Wilkerson enlisted in the Army at the age of 17, and served in the Korean War. He returned to civilian life and re-enlisted two more times.

Wilkerson fought in Vietnam, where he was shot down three times. He was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries sustained in the first of those helicopter crashes and gunbattles.

America has 19.3 million veterans according to the American Community Survey, he said.

Wilkerson said that veterans come home and join military service organizations, but do not even seek the benefits to which they are entitled.

For example, a Vietnam veteran was recently awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic life-saving actions.

"He went for almost 40 years without getting any recognition for the operation that he was involved in," he said. "It was conducted in the country of Laos where he was giving credit for saving more than 100 people. He was a medic.

"He didn't speak one word of the operation for almost 30 years because it was a classified operation. So you have people who go into the military, do their work, and they come home."

That is why it is important for people to realize who veterans are, and that it is because of them that the U.S. can have activities such as the WCC program, he said.

"Give them credit for what they have done," he said. "Give them what they rightfully deserve for the freedom of this country."

If people don't do that, then it will not happen because veterans don't do it on their own, he said.

Wilkerson said he knows that to be true because he had been one of those veterans.

He said he retired from the 5th Special Forces in 1975 and had just joined the Military Order of the Purple Heart six years ago.

Wilkerson said he attended the meetings where he talked with other veterans and that was one of the reasons he was speaking at the ceremony.

"Now I realize that the veterans are the quietest," he said. "They say that the squeaky wheel gets the oil. But they (veterans) go home, and they come out to service organizations, but they come out to get a chance to be with their buddies and enjoy the fellowship that we as veterans have together.

"They are not seeking anything from the country. So it is up to us to continue to remember our veterans and don't ever forget that freedom is not free."

Haleigh Wilhide, WCC medical and officer administration instructor, gave the closing remarks.

Wilhide is a captain in the 156th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of the N.C. Air National Guard. Her husband is stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.

Wilhide said she wears many hats as an instructor, volunteer, the operator of a nonprofit organization, National Guard member, and mother of two active, young daughters.

"I would say though that the military hat that I wear is unlike any other hat," she said. "This hat is only worn by the less than one percent of the American population."

Life can be crazy and throw curve balls at a person, she said.

Her family was thrown a giant curve ball just a few years when her newborn baby was diagnosed with a deadly childhood cancer.

"I am happy to share that our miracle baby is doing great and is in remission and can run circles around any other 5-year-old child," she said. "If you don't believe me, then just ask her."

Wilhide said she brought that up because at the time she had to leave her WCC family and National Guard unit for a year.

She had 10 years of service and could have retired from the National Guard.

She didn't.

"There was never one time that I thought I maybe would hang up my uniform, never return serving my county," Wilhide said. "Not one time. Not once. Those of us who wear this uniform understand how it is part of our identity. It is in our blood. It is part of us.

"Serving is something bigger than ourselves."

Wilhide said she has had an opportunity to meet diverse people from all over the world and to travel the word in support of state and national missions.

Recently, she was activated in support of Hurricane Irma as the C-130s in the unit flew to Key West to evacuate patients out of a hospital before the hurricane hit.

"I know there are many mothers and fathers, young kids and college students in this auditorium right now where your services and talents are needed and wanted," she said. "I encourage all of you to volunteer or potentially even serve where those talents can be exposed.

"We can all make a difference in our community and in our state, all over our nation by serving one small act at a time. What better way can we show future generations how to live their lives than by serving others -- putting something or somebody else ahead of us."

Wilhide said she took the oath of service in honor of all who have served before her, those who are now serving beside her and those who will follow her. She encouraged audience members to say thank you to service members.

"A thank you goes a long way," she said.