Weeks before the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, two Southside Virginia residents crafted a gathering in Danville as a patriotic salute to defenders of freedom.
The mission was simple: find as many veterans as possible and treat them to a meal and celebration.
Event organizers Joyce French, former executive director of the Southside Planning District Commission, and Ted Daniel, former South Boston town manager and a United States Air Force veteran, have organized dinners throughout the Southside to honor those who served in the military. It’s their way to show appreciation to a group of people they’re thankful for.
“When we see the faces of the young men that went in at Pearl Harbor, at Omaha Beach, we think about what they have done,” French said. “But those who came back from Korea and Vietnam, some of those came and went without being recognized. We want to get back to recognizing them.”
The catered dinner Nov. 15 at Danville Golf Club honored all veterans and featured special guests from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the war on terror.
“We have a limited time to honor these veterans. Without them, without a doubt, our country would not be the country we have today,” French said. “God bless them for what they went through.”
Since French and Daniel don’t live in Danville, they contacted people who did. Those contacts helped lead them in the direction of several veterans who lived in the area, whom they invited to the special dinner. The duo initially focused their search around those from the so-called Greatest Generation.
“We’re trying to find as many WWII veterans as we can,” French said. “We found four [in the Danville area] ... We also took suggestions for veterans from Korea, Vietnam and the war on terror.”
During the dinner, veterans regaled the guests about their time in the service and beyond.
“Everybody else was going,” said Lewis Gravely, a WWII veteran. “I decided that when I turned 18, I was going too. And I did.”
In 1944, the teenager enlisted in the United States Army. By 1945, he was back out in society as a civilian.
Gravely, who now is 93 years old, reflected on his time in the military.
He sat at a table with other WWII soldiers and regaled listeners with his stories as a field artillery soldier.
“I would repeat gun commands as they came down,” Gravely said.
After completing his training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Gravely went overseas and fought in Europe. He spent time in France, Czechoslovakia and Germany.
“The only thing I saw were foxholes and tents — that was all,” Gravely said.
In 1945, Gravely found himself back in the United States. The teenage soldier anticipated the beginning of six weeks of amphibious training before going to the Pacific.
During the transitional period, the war ended. Gravely no longer had to go overseas and he left the army.
Looking back, Gravely wished he would’ve asked to stay in the military longer.
“I didn’t make it a career, like I would’ve liked,” Gravely said.
Instead, Gravely found employment at the Danville Register & Bee, where he worked from 1951 to 1990.
Another veteran honored at the event, Stephen Staats, served in the United States Navy during the Vietnam War from 1969 to 1972 and in the reserves until 1975. His brother served at the same time and went to Vietnam.
Since his brother was in the combat zone, Staats, a signalman 3rd class petty officer, served at Midway Island.
“I ran a tug,” Staats said. “We would bring ships in to refuel on the way to and from Vietnam.”
While Staats later served on a fleet in Long Beach, California, his favorite memories of his time in the service occurred on the island, located not far off of the coast of Hawaii.
“It was isolated duty. Not all military personnel could be in Vietnam,” Staats said. “I liked meeting the guys there and talking about it.”
When he returned home following his service, Staats faced a harsh nation.
“I loved being in the navy, but they didn’t like us,” Staats said.
The veteran flew into LaGuardia Airport and stepped off of the plane in his uniform.
“I called a taxi, but when the driver got there and saw me in my dress blues, he wouldn’t take me. I had to call the cops before I could make it home,” Staats said. “A lot of friends had similar experiences.”
It wasn’t until decades later when Staats noticed the tides changing.
“It changed a lot during Desert Storm and especially after 9/11,” Staats said. “That’s when we were finally all recognized as veterans. We were all recognized as people who served our country. We got our ‘welcome home’ years after our service, basically.”
John Ward, a 101-year-old army veteran, arrived at the event with his granddaughter, Hannah Davis, and his 13-year-old great-granddaughter, Tes Rodgers.
“We like hearing stories about a different time in life, especially about things we take for granted,” Davis said. “He was raised in a different time period and he has the most interesting stories.”
Rodgers and her classmates at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Danville have hosted Ward in the past.
“He used to come to the school,” Rodgers said. “He would tell us how he fought and he would tell us stories.”
At the veteran’s dinner, Ward spoke about his involvement with Gen. George Patton’s 7th Army and the race to Messina against British General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army.
“He didn’t make it easy for us,” Ward said. “We would only sleep for two or three hours. He had us moving all the time.”
The veteran also spoke of the difficulties he, as a communicator carrying a radio, faced when the practice was in its infancy.
“Those first radios they designed, they weren’t working too good,” Ward said. “They were falling apart. They were not designed for what they were used for. They hit the ground too often.”
Janet Roberson, an army veteran, enjoyed the opportunity to congregate with other servicemen and women and meet their loved ones.
“I think it is an excellent thing to have here in Danville. Some of the veterans won’t be here much longer and we need to give them all the recognition. That generation didn’t get a lot of recognition. They never complained; they just did what had to be done,” Roberson said. “I really like having them and their family together and recognized. It really makes it special and about them.”
The dinner featured several special moments including the setting of a Missing Man Table, honoring veterans who are missing in action or are prisoners of war, a rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Andrew Inge, a speech about not forgetting veterans by retired Lt. Gen. Joseph Inge and a veterans salute by retired Rear Adm. John Hekman.
The highlight of the evening occurred when a procession of heroes entered the dining room on a Walkway of Honor. Family and friends lined the reception area decorated with a helmet, combat boots, a WWII uniform and American flags.
One by one, French announced each veteran’s name and a brief biography of their time in the service. She started with a veteran from the war on terror, and then veterans from the Vietnam War and the Korean War. Veterans from WWII entered as part of the procession’s grand finale.
As each veteran made their way toward the front of the room, family members and friends clapped for the individuals. Some veterans saluted once they reached their post.
The Walkway of Honor allowed a room full of individuals thankful for their freedom an opportunity to recognize those who fought for it with all the pomp and circumstance they deserve.
“When you bring in their loved ones and they all line up and are clapping for them, it’s like they’re going down the red carpet,” French said.