VALDOSTA -- Friends of the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard filled the home stands of Bazemore-Hyder Stadium Friday. Across Cleveland Field, the Lowndes High School Air Force Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps displayed a large American flag.

This was the setting of the Lowndes Veterans Council's annual Veterans' Day Observance ceremony. Col. Mark C. Noyes, vice commander of the 347th Rescue Wing at Moody Air Force Base, set the tone.

"More than 48 million Americans have served our country since 1776," he said. "Whether they served in time of war or peace, America's veterans all share a common bond -- their unwavering belief in the cause of freedom, a belief so strong they were willing to give their lives, if need be, in its defense. Sadly, nearly a million have made the ultimate sacrifice in combat or combat-related services."

Surrounded by veterans, Noyes noted there are still "fortunately" many men and women once active in the armed forces among the living, maintaining an active presence in their homes, cities, states, and country. He described them as mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, and next-door neighbors, representations of "the finest men and women America has to offer."

The years spent in uniform, Noyes said, represented a defining moment in their lives. He said their military service gave them a sense of commitment that will certainly last a lifetime.

"Whether they wore the uniform in wartime or peacetime, they felt a new sense of responsibility," he continued. "They came to understand the price of freedom because they could put names and faces to it. Freedom was not just an abstract concept. It was the bond of loyalty they forged with their buddies in the ranks."

Before Sept. 11, 2001, Noyes said the symbolism of Veterans' Day may not have meant much, if anything, to many people. However, if nothing else, he said those terrorist attacks forced Americans to realize that their freedom has a price, that their freedom is not free.

"The events of Sept. 11 have changed our focus and, for many, the way we conduct our lives," he said. "We are now fighting a global war on terrorism against violent extremists who want to end our way of life. This war is about two incompatible visions of the world -- democracy, justice, freedom and hope on one hand; intolerance, repression, violence and fear on the other."

Noyes said freedom has never been free, a belief that resonates in the hearts of America's veterans. For those who have put their lives on the line for their country, he said freedom has a special meaning many will never know.

"Ask a veteran who stormed Omaha Beach in World War II, who almost froze on Korea's Chosin Reservoir, who slogged through the steaming Mekong Delta in Vietnam, who chased the Republican Guard all the way back to Baghdad or who is still fighting Al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq," he explained. "These people could tell you the meaning of freedom."

A lot has changed since the Korean and Vietnam wars, Noyes said. Men and women of the armed forces today, upon their return to American soil, are welcomed by individuals who thank them for their service. It took time, he said, but American citizens have begun to recognize the price these men and women have paid and the sacrifice they have made.

"These patriots contribute to an overall force second to none, and their efforts ensure we continue to meet our commitments to freedom without interruption," Noyes said.

Turning his attention abroad, Noyes talked about the service members on alert around the clock on the Korean Peninsula, working to deter conflict. In the meantime, he said, American leaders in Washington D.C. are working to find a peaceful resolution to the area's problems.

"We have inherited an enduring legacy that was born in battle -- was paid for with American and Korean blood -- and has resulted in a partnership that has grown stronger every day for more than 50 years," he said. "Through this friendship ... (we are) well-equipped to face any threats the north can muster. The combined show of military capability provides stability in a region that has had continual unrest."

In the Middle East, Noyes said, referring specifically to the Air Force, airmen work around the clock in temperatures averaging well above 100 degrees building bases, loading and unloading cargo and launching aircraft at various locations. He said they fly an average of 150 sorties a day over Iraq and 75 a day over Afghanistan.

Since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001 and Operation Iraqi Freedom began in March 2003, Noyes said the Air Force has flown more than 49,500 missions, moving 1.3 million tons of cargo and ferrying nearly 2.8 million troops to the region.

"These airlift operations are second only to the Berlin airlift in scope," he added. "These are impressive numbers but our airmen's contributions are not limited to the battlefield. They are not only fighting insurgents in the Middle East, but are continually participating in many humanitarian efforts as well. They are helping to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure and are ensuring the success of the first elections in Afghanistan and Iraq."

Following Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita, Noyes said Air Force personnel delivered more than 17,000 tons of supplies for victims. The 347th Rescue Wing at Moody Air Force Base was instrumental in rescuing over 4,300.

"As these figures indicate, we've been there for America," he said. "Luckily, airmen are not alone in the fight. Dramatic improvements have been made in joint service cooperation during the last two decades. We are proud that the increasing use of joint force planning and training is occurring within our defense establishment."

Referring to a statement made by Air Force Chief of Staff General T. Michael Moseley, Noyes said the his branch of the armed forces will never stray from its mission -- to fly and fight. However, while the days of old-school dog fighting or aerial battling often seen in the movies are basically gone, he said the Air Force will continue to defend America, support American interests both at home and abroad and win the war on terrorism.

" ... it's refreshing to see America has rediscovered a great pride in our nation's veterans and to remember the sacrifice of those who have died and to honor those who are still with us," he concluded. "We owe so much to our veterans, and it is a debt we can never truly repay. Their stories are the story of our history because America rose to greatness on their shoulders. We owe them our very way of life, our freedom to live, work and raise our families as we please. The very least we can do is to honor their sacrifices and thank them for all they've done for this great country. Because of veterans past, we are free. Because of veterans present and future, we'll remain free."

Also participating during Friday's festivities were the Valdosta State University Air Force ROTC conducting a missing man table ceremony for prisoners of war and those missing in action, the Veterans Honor Guard conducting a silence wreath laying, the Moody Air Force Base Honor Guard Rifle Team conducting a gun salute, and Moody Air Force Base's 479th Flying Training Group commanded by Flighthead Col. Richard D. Turner conducting a missing man fly-by.

Nov. 11 marks the anniversary of the Armistice which was signed in the Forest of Compiegne by the Allies and the Germans in 1918, ending World War I, after four years of conflict. Originally known as Armistice Day, it was later renamed Veterans' Day, a time to honor all who had fought in various American wars, not just in World War I.  

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